Saying good bye to Ken Olsen

Thoughts upon the passing of an industry giant.
Written by Dan Kusnetzky, Contributor

I was saddened to learn of a great man's passing. Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (now part of Hewlett-Packard), passed away at 84. I had been following the discussion of his long illness in several Digital Equipment alumni forums and find myself recalling meeting him on several occasions, presenting to his team once and 16 years with the company.

He fostered a "can do" culture that pushed the limits of technology in all directions. He was also known to say things such as "Do you know how many technical manuals we could print for that amount of money?" when marketing people did their best to increase industry awareness, interest, desire and build business. He never seemed to understand that there was a sea change happening in who made the decision to purchase IT products.

Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) was an amazingly inventive company under Ken's guidance. It could be said that the company invented the concept of personal computing with its PDP-8 line of minicomputers. It can also be said that it also founded the concept we now call "virtualization" with several of its products including:

  • its line of terminal servers (access virtualization),
  • distributed application frameworks (application virtualization),
  • clustering and high availability solutions (processing virtualization),
  • network servers (network virtualization),
  • storage servers (storage virtualization)
  • and distributed systems and network management functions that were the predecessors of today's management tools for virtualized and cloud environments.

The company contributed heavily to the creation and maintenance of what is now known as the Internet through its work on The Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET).

Digital missed several opportunities by sticking to its own line of thinking and ignoring what customers were requesting including:

  • Personal computers — DEC was late to the PC party because Ken thought that people didn't want to be their own systems administrator. When DEC did join the party, it came out with three incompatible products: the x86-based Rainbow 100, the PDP-8 based DECmate 100 and the PDP-11 based Professional 350.
  • Operating systems — it is clear that CPM/80 and MS/PC-DOS were derived from the experience offered by DEC's OS/8 and RT-11 operating systems. DEC had several chances to make RT-11 an industry standard and chose, instead, to "keep it to itself."
  • Open systems — although a part of DEC was heavily involved with the creation of UNIX, that operating system was always seen as a competitor for DEC's own PDP-11, VAX and DECSYSTEM 10 and DECsystem 20 operating systems rather than an opportunity to gain new customers and address their requirements. The thought behind UNIX drives today's Linux systems as well.
  • Networking — DEC's DECnet was is arguably better than TCP/IP and might be seen as better even today. It could have become an industry standard.  DEC decided to keep this jewel to itself and now it can be considered an interesting footnote to computing history.

I could go on and on about the successes and failures of Ken Olsen and DEC.  I worked for DEC for 16 years, 12 years of which were the best working environment I have ever experienced. I also had the experience of being sent to speak at a trade show to represent the company after being told that my group and my position would be gone when I returned. I must admit that I spent a good deal of the time at that show trying to find another position rather than presenting DEC's messages. I also found that DEC's management was more interested in my research and my assessment of what the results meant after I left to join IDC.

Good bye Ken. I'll miss you and am very thankful for all of the things I learned and experienced during my time with your company.

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