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Digital's Technology Heritage   

These messages summarizing Digital's technology heritage were presented to the DEC Connection audience by Rod Sutherland on 27 Sep 2008 at the dedication of the Ken Olsen Science Center and Digital Loggia of Technology at Gordon College.

Rod is a 30-year veteran, starting at Digital in PDP-8 Engineering in 1969.  He quickly moved on to marketing & sales, where he helped build DECís Corporate Account Program.  Rod worked with Digital's Largest Customers Worldwide (traveled to 55 countries), helping them understand DEC's technologies and to plan their future technology strategies with that understanding.  He departed in 1999, recruited by EMC to help start-up their Executive Briefing Centre in Cork, Ireland (EMC Director); There, he saw many of the same customers.  After four years, Rod returned to the U. S. to retire.

Rod Sutherland served as Digital's "Corporate Ambassador" throughout his career.

Help us create a comprehensive "Digital's Technical Legacy" summary document for organizations who honor Ken Olsen/Digital in the future.

Download this word doc (click here) and send your corrections/enhancements to webmaster@decconnection.org.  We are particularly interested in Digital "firsts" and substantiated "bests", i.e., VMS was the most reliable o/s ever, citing specific industry awards won, etc.  You can add substantiation info at bottom of word doc.

Over the years there have been many reporters/authors/analysts/pundits that have reported on DEC. It has been my observation that they have looked at the company using the wrong instruments... some looked at us using a microscope, others used a telescope (some looking through the wrong end I suspect) but I believe that the proper instrument for viewing DEC is a Kaleidoscope!  I view the "jewels" of DEC (products/people/processes) over the years like the jewels in a kaleidoscope and, over the years, Ken Olsen and the Operations Committee would give it a twist (re-organize) to adjust to new product lines or services or markets or geographies... each time and each twist the jewels would re-align to reveal a new beautiful array of the same jewels with a few more added.

My remarks today will be about some of those jewels... Digital's great technologies and the technologists that created them... and the lasting impact of their work. In the late 60's, in an interview for Business Week, Tom Watson, then CEO of IBM was asked "Do you have any hobbies?" His answer was... "Yes, I collect salesmen." If someone asked Ken if he had any hobbies (in addition to gardening) he could have said, "yes... I collect engineers." And did he ever! -- some of the most creative that I have ever known (and, from our customer and partner base yet more creative engineers were attracted to our technologies).

Ken had one goal for Digital's technologists - to create elegant simplicity in Engineering. This attracted great engineers to the company. The results of their work are all over the industry today. The Personnel Department (H/R) ad campaign was an appeal to technologists: "Come to Digital, where we define 80% and you define 20% of your job." (I think a lot of us were slightly dyslexic...we got the numbers reversed!)

One of my all-time favorite technologists arrived as a result of this... an amazing guy named Tom Stockebrand. He was, if memory serves, actually a Chemical Engineer and was hired to build our first "integrated circuit" known as a diode strait. It was meant to allow our modules to derive logic power (-3 volts) with a single component instead of the handful of resistors and expensive diodes that were required at the time. Ken tells the story that the week the project finally delivered the first devices the price of diodes dropped to around 14 cents... making the diode straits our first "technology/financial failure"... the important thing is that Tom - the technologist - stayed on and created some of the most innovative products the company ever built!  You know some of them...the DECwriter(s), the VT-05, VT-50 and 52, and on and on...)

That's what I mean by "technologists" -- people that create and continue to create... to do the "hard work" of engineering that Ken Olsen understood and admired to create "elegant simplicity" for our customers each and every time.

Just look at the families of products and the technologies/technologist behind them:

  • PDP-1: in 1965 BBN (Bolt, Beranek & Newman) took this, created software- implemented through DARPA project then created TCP/IP, which was the start of the Internet around 1969. The designer of the PDP-1 was Ben Gurley and the lead wireman was Mel Arsenault. Later on that year (1965) Ken sent Jack Shields to BB&N to modify one of their PDP-1's for more than one user and timesharing was born!
  • PDP-6: in 1966, created the timesharing model on a grander scale. The philosophy was a powerful computing capability administered to by professionals so that "real people" could get the benefits without having to take care of the resource. This was the birth of "Data Center computing" which slowly grew into what today is called "cloud computing"
  • PDP-10: was the follow-on to the PDP-6... so easy to use - users referred to the ASR33 TTY console as the computer - it was "huggable". In fact, one of the younger users of the PDP-10 saw that TTY console as THE COMPUTER and imagined a day when the computer could be "Personal"... that young user was Bill Gates, a schoolboy in the state of Washington who became one of our more successful users!
  • PDP-8: our first ad campaign for the 8 was the machine with a Teddy Bear to connote "approachable" computing. My image is of the first mobile computer in the back seat of a Volkswagen convertible. The PDP-8 really jump-started the OEM market for embedded systems and applications such as the Coulter blood analyzer. In those days the customers so depended on DEC that Coulter actually built a factory beside our new plant in Puerto Rico so that we could ship the systems next door to them...that is customer trust!
  • PDP-11 - a software "dream machine" that allowed customers to solve problems their way, with its various flavors and applications. The PDP-11 spawned many different operating systems, technologies and technologists. It was a breeding ground for DEC creativity and customer creativity as well.
    • RSTS/E time sharing on a minicomputer with incredible power brought the data center into businesses and schools like never before.
    • MUMPS in hospitals and manufacturing settings brought both a database and a data management language and is still used today!
    • Email arrived as a natural way for users to communicate from one system to another (department-to-department/user-to-user). This reflected DEC peoples' way of communicating instead of like IBM's PROFS e-mail approach which was a top-down approach like IBM.
    • DTN, the Digital Telephone Network... do you remember how easy it was to just dial 7 digits to get to any DEC employee in the world?
    • "Phone" - a little utility in RSTS that was the Instant Messaging (IM) of 1976...
    • VAXnotes were the beginning of "social computing" or what, today, is referred to as WEB 2.0
    • ALL-IN-1: today this is Microsoft Exchange. ALL-IN-1 was an excellent example of how well DEC worked with its customers. In this case the customer was E. I. duPont and a "service solution" created for their business needs called the "Charlotte Project". It was "productized" into ALL-IN-1 and became one of our most important and popular technologies... thanks to duPont and Skip Walter and hundreds of others...

    The PDP-11 was an incubator for one technologist that I think of as one of the "coolest" software engineers ever - Richie Lary, a high-schooler that we would let "play with" our systems in the Diagnostic Engineering labs in the evenings after school working for Denny Pavlock. We wanted to bring the PDP-8 into the world of real time... one summer Richie did that for us (over the week-end!) writing a real-time monitor he called "Toy" and came to be known as RTS-8. We never did much with it because his work got noticed and it drove the development of RT-11. His work also got noticed by a guy trying to develop a small disk-based OS for the Intel 8008 named Gary Kildall. You may recognize the name... he sold his OS to a guy named Bill Gates who convinced a company called IBM to use it (MS-DOS) in their new "personal computer".

    The incubator continued to develop more technologists and technologies like David Cutler's RSX project - he was one of many "fathers" of VMS (and came from duPont, by-the-way) Dave went on to lead the "Prism" project in Bellevue WA - eventually joined Microsoft and created Windows NT, which evolved into XP. Even today there are as many customers trying to get "back" to Windows XP as there are trying to get "forward" to whatever the next Microsoft OS will be!

    It is interesting to note that a large number of DEC technologists have been contributing to the advancement of the industry working at other companies. The Apple OSX project was "Rock Solid" at announcement thanks to Roger Heinen who drove the quality of the OS development. It remains still as one of the best OS efforts of all time. It might be interesting to remember that under Apple's wonderful OSX beats a UNIX variant known as BSD (Berkley UNIX) that we helped to bring into the world after the original UNIX was created on our PDP7 so many years ago at Bell Labs. Roger went on to Microsoft as a VP in channels and later to the world of venture capitalists, joining Bill Strecker and others.

    VAX and VMS started a waterfall of technologies and, more importantly, technologists, as the MicroVAX and MicroVMS were developed. Technologists like the amazing John Clarke who brought us into CMOS (and SCSI) and Dick Hustvedt who I think of as the father of Micro VMS.

    All of this work on chip-based systems led us into the Alpha technologies and another of my all-time favorite technologists: Bob Supnik. He had delivered the MicroVAX and was the natural leader for the Alpha H/W project. I had the privilege of being present at the Board of Directors meeting when they did a review of the Alpha project. Board member Phillip Caldwell asked Bob "When will this project be done?" and, without any the least hesitation Bob said "We'll be tape-out (the handing off of the design tapes to manufacturing) on Oct 24th...a Thursday...in the afternoon." Phil leaned over to me and whispered "Now there's a guy who knows his business!"

    The team in Hudson became its own little kaleidoscope launching many more technologies along with Alpha. There were a number of networking chips (DC003,004, etc.) that set in place the skill set that Intel eventually "inherited" with the Hudson plant. It is that skill set that helped to deliver Intel's Centrino communications strategy and wireless networking standards of today.

    Another of the technologies was the strongARM. To date Intel has actually shipped more strongARM chips that all the Pentiums ever shipped!  One of the technologists behind the strongARM was Dick Doberphul... whose company was recently acquired by Apple and whose technology expertise will be critical to the next version of iPhone!

    To many, over the years, the technologist of all technologists was Gordon Bell, whose contributions do not end with DEC. Gordon is presently at Microsoft as a Chief Scientist and is doing the "My Digital Life" project that you all may find interesting. And to think that we or Microsoft wouldn't even have Gordon if it weren't for another technologist named Bob Puffer (launched our disk business) who also happened to be an EMT and saved Gordon's life on a skiing trip in Colorado! 

    Through all of this there was...NETWORKING... and it is here that our greatest stories are told and hundreds of technologists contributed. Technologists that were inside DEC and our customers and our partners...even our competitors!  Digital's collaboration with Xerox and Intel is a good example. Together we popularized Ethernet, IEEE Std 802.3. Today there are on the order of 17 million Ethernet ports each year!  This wouldn't have happened without collaboration with our customer and our competitor.  We were always good at working "across-the-aisle" when it came to technology... all the way back to the 60's when John Macnamara designed the UART (Universal Asynchronous Receiver-Transmitter) to "network" devices over wires that ran outside of the computer room. DEC shared this chip design with the entire industry rather than keep it to ourselves. So it has to be appreciated that DEC, with others, really launched the biggest and eventually most important technologies of all: NETWORKING and it is here that the whole of DEC's influence really gets "Kaleidoscopic"...

Addendum: "Ken's Kaleidoscope" - by Rod Sutherland

It has long been my considered observation that companies tend to build products in their own image.

One needs only to look at the slick, sealed, tightly controlled and ever-so-proprietary iMac or iPod or iPhone as a good example today of how products of a company can reflect their culture and even the personality of their leader or founder.

HP in it's earliest years was a company focused on the lab... on research and on strong and creative product lines and still is today.

IBM was very much a top-down hierarchically managed organization and it's products certainly reflected that culture.

This is a good thing... it helps the designers and other employees as a sort of compass and helps to inform customers and partners so that they can make plans or at least not suffer surprises or missed expectations.

It is in the area of communications and networking technologies that we can find the Digital difference. I saved this for last because it is here that Digital leadership and culture shine most brightly in the kaleidoscope.

It is no surprise that the openness of the Digital culture and the peer-to-peer values of our people spawned a set of products and a networking architecture that was a direct reflection of those values.

For all of our years that style of network connectivity and openness grew by leaps and bounds in capacity and capability. In a very real way each of our computers could collaborate as a peer with any other of our computers across our networks without regard for its power or its position...just like Digital employees!

The rate in which our DECnet capabilities grew was a mirror of how fast our company grew and even the way that our products "connected" became the norm for how other products evolved in the marketplace.

Consider the Ethernet: it began as 1 megabit connection, peer-to-peer with few restrictions. Any computer connected could communicate/share with any other connected computer. IBM offered an alternative technology known as Token Ring. It was faster at 1.6 megabits and very predictable in it's performance. IBM attacked the Ethernet design as "indeterminate" and therefore suspect.

The very fact that it was "indeterminate" became the real value of Ethernet even as it grew to 10 mbits (Token Ring countered with 16 mbits) then 100 mbits (Token Ring dropped out by then) and today is found in Apple MACbook pros and other laptops at a full 1000 mbits! (This, after all, was the way that DEC people and processes worked...)

This flexibility of interconnection was a the heart of many other technologies during that time. Consider VAXclusters. As the needs of our customers grew to incredible level requiring computing capacities that were beyond the abilities of any single machine. Our natural answer was to connect many machines, via fibre optics, in a cluster of peers... very powerful peers... to create massive capabilities.

At IBM their culture would set out to build a bigger machine... at HP they went into the labs and worked on an extremely complex solution (not elegantly simple) that took many years to find its way into products. (my favorite story in this area was from Dr. Grace Hopper who said it best..."When the early farmers needed to pull a large stump from their fields they didn't grow a bigger ox, they harnessed many oxen together to solve the problem!")

Today this approach is found it the work of Intel and AMD as they bring more and more CPUs together connected via common memory. 2,4,6,8 and soon more CPUs in multi-core chips are rapidly becoming the norm from both companies. It is clustering at the chip level and will continue for some time to come.

The style of networking that we espoused and the style of communication that we used on our work is to be found over and over in the World-wide Web today. Things like VAXnotes are the RSS feeds of today. Generations of intelligent storage systems find so much of their roots in the work at Digital in those years.

It is in the networking area that Ken's guidance of "Elegant Simplicity" showed so much of its value and still does... nothing else compares.

Finally, it was with each twist of Ken's Kaleidoscope that we were able to connect, reconnect, grow and respond to the marketplace needs of the day so adroitly... until the "rules" changed in the market and good-enough engineering at good-enough prices ruled the day.

Yet we all must remember that while where we did all this is no longer what we did, together, lives on and thrives.

P.S. As a personal footnote I think it is worth observing that a Kaleidoscope has little beauty and little result unless the hand that holds it aims it up... into the light... and Ken certainly knew where that light was.  It doesn't work at all if someone removes many of the jewels inside, turns it back and forth erratically or turns it away from the light.


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