Tuesday, May 24, 2011

RIP Tom West, Begetter of "a New Machine"

Tom West, who led the development of the Data General (DG) MV/8000 minicomputer, died last Thursday. He achieved fame 30 years ago when Tracy Kidder wrote about the project in The Soul of a New Machine, which won a Pulitzer Prize.

I read a bit of the book when excerpts appeared in a magazine, then a bit later read a roommate's copy. Later still, after I had some experience with the MV/Eclipse line, my wife was assigned the book for a management class, and I read it yet again. A couple of points were clearer on that reading:
  • The decision to incorporate the 16-bit instruction set imposed certain constraints. The MVs had four general-purpose registers, for example; for another, one could address words but not bytes with a register-relative address.
  • The lead architect of the team had wanted a VAX-like instruction set. The VAX instruction set was elaborate, just the thing if one were writing an operating system in assembly language.
  • About the time that the book came out, researchers in California were discovering how hard it was to speed up the VAX to the point they wanted, and considering alternatives. The new model of "reduced-instruction-set computing" (RISC) produced some startlingly fast machines, and ate into the old minicomputer market at the high end while the 386 started to nibble at the other.
By the early 1990s, the DG users' group magazine quoted West as saying that customers "wanted to get their MIPS from gun-gray boxes running UNIX." This was pretty much true. With the Aviion, based on Motorola's 88000 RISC processor, DG made a very good effort to give the customers what they wanted. Alas, Motorola was one of many companies to discover that trying to fight the x86 machines was pointless. EMC bought up the wreckage of DG  for the Clariion storage line.

I enjoyed working with the MV/8000 and its successors, and for that matter their 16-bit predecessors. The AOS/VS operating system did many things well, the command-line interpreters were well thought out, and the assembler easily enough learned. I'm grateful for the chance to have worked with those machines.

1 comment:

  1. I had never run across mention of the DG Aviion, before. Interestingly, it seems the only notable 3rd-party commercial use of the Motorola 88000 RISC processor. I know that NeXT was building their RISC workstation around it and, presumably, had OPENSTEP running on it. So that which became Mac OS X was running on that beleaguered CPU at one point.

    Here's a Flickr photoset of the box:

    And a screenshot of DG/UX running on an Aviion:

    I read and quite enjoyed "Soul of a New Machine" and found it inspiring. It would have been interesting to be involved in hardware design way back when. It's less pioneering work today, it seems.