DEC's 40 years of innovation

DEC's 40 years of innovation

Summary: Digital Equipment Corporation changed the business, the technology and the experience of computing. In memory of founder Ken Olsen, who died recently, we present this tour of DEC's 40-year life

TOPICS: IT Employment

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  • DEC Rainbow 1001

    If the VAX 11/780 was the high-water mark of DEC's dominance, the Rainbow 100 was a bad omen for the future. An idiosyncratic design that married a Z80 chip with an 8088, it managed to be compatible with very little and annoy users very much.

    Taken as a stand-alone computer, the hardware was built to DEC's usual high standards; in the PC market, it was a bad fit. The user couldn't format floppy disks, which had to be bought pre-formatted from DEC. It wasn't PC compatible, so it couldn't run much software. It had an odd keyboard layout. It cost $3,000.

    There are many signs that DEC itself wasn't too keen on the Rainbow, as little marketing was done and the sales teams got more money for less work by selling minicomputers. Plus, it was mostly built around technologies that DEC hadn't invented, which, in a fiercely proud engineering company, rarely endears a product.

    The result, in the end, was that DEC missed the microcomputer revolution and was buried, much as most of the mainframe manufacturers had dismissed minicomputers 20 years before.

    Photo credit: David Alcubierre/Wikimedia

  • DEC Alpha processor

    In 1992, DEC had one final burst of genius — the DEC Alpha processor.

    Although the company had had considerable success with the single-chip versions of its minicomputers, the architectural limitations had made them obsolete in any format. The Alpha chip was designed on RISC principles and was intended to support a thousandfold increase in performance over its projected 25-year lifespan.

    There is evidence that the Alpha would have succeeded. The first versions, the 21064 line, produced unparalleled performance for the CMOS process on which they were built, foreshadowing Intel's later success in pushing that technology. Later versions introduced on-chip secondary caches, high-speed out-of-order execution and on-chip memory controllers. They would have supported simultaneous multi-threading, had the design not been cancelled after Compaq's 1998 purchase of DEC.

    Although the Alpha continued as a server chip for some time, software and hardware support dropped off and it was finally killed when Intel persuaded its customers that the Itanium was going to be the muscle chip of choice.

    Photo credit: Dyl/Wikimedia Commons

  • DEC StrongARM processor

    One of DEC's last pieces of innovation was the StrongARM, a curious combination of ARM's low-power processor architecture and elements of the Alpha's high-performance design. The chimera was surprisingly successful, finding its way into PDAs and set-top boxes and helping establish the ARM architecture in a number of new — and subsequently very important — niches.

    The design proved more important as a bargaining chip than a processor chip, as it was passed to Intel as part of a complex deal to settle an intellectual-property dispute. Intel developed the design into the XScale processor, which was in turn sold to Marvell Technology Group in 2006, prior to Intel's announcement of its Atom low-power x86 processor.

    Photo credit: Dirk Oppelt/Wikimedia Commons

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Topic: IT Employment

Rupert Goodwins

About Rupert Goodwins

Rupert started off as a nerdy lad expecting to be an electronics engineer, but having tried it for a while discovered that journalism was more fun. He ended up on PC Magazine in the early '90s, before that evolved into ZDNet UK - and Rupert evolved with them into an online journalist.

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  • Yeh I remember the DEC Alpha chip being released towards the end of my Comp. Sci. degree (haha that dates me). Half (well almost!) the chip die area was taken up with a massive clock transistor. Revolutionary for it's time and very exciting!
    Bob Wya
  • Plenty of Alpha's still about. I have a DS10L (1U server) myself still. Only for support purposes but I still support several other customers running Alphaservers!!!
  • I'd forgotten about the Alpha's enormous clock transistor! I remember thinking at the time that it was an heroic way to deal with clock skew - and then wondering what on earth the gate capacitance of such a monster would be like. DEC came up with a few clever skew schemes, especially for multiple chips, and Intel now employs some of the people who thought them up - I guess now that the mad dash for extra MHz has finished, it's a done deal. For now.

    As for Alphas in the wild: I hear a rumour that one place was sold a bunch of Alpha servers not so long ago as part of what was undoubtedly called 'a complete solution' for a particular engineering task. Said place is now suffering somewhat for having to keep the things going and fed with extra storage. As I told my informant - pictures, or we can't print the name. But it seems very plausible.
  • Yes, DEC & HP in the 70s vied with each other in the mini market. HP physically separated data from code in memory. DEC with RSTS created the base code for all subsequent command code, CP-M, MSDOS, the works.
  • Let's not forget Data General Corporation, and their Eagle MV/8000, the design and development of which was immotalised in The Soul Of A New Machine

    But certainly, I have extremely fond memories of the PDP-11 with RSTS-E at Trent Polytechnic (now Nottingham Trent University) in England when I first became interested in computers as a result of the school having been given an Olivetti Programma 101.
    And then the PDP-8 at Manchester University where we learned to programme in assembler.

    Damn, but I miss those days...
  • Soul Of A New Machine is a terrific book. Made me want to be a microcoder, but there's not much call for that these days...
  • The man did a great work, and making public the techno,a+.