Posted by: doctornuke | December 19, 2010

A Half-Century of Technology – part 4

Right, where was I? Just finishing up at SRS I think – still working on my dissertation. I established a proof of principle version of CENTAUR written in C and running on various Mac systems. But about this time, SRS bought a couple of the new IBM RS/6000 workstations. Unix based on the Power1 RISC chipset with a 60+MHz clock speed, this thing was a screamer. But it provided me with the speed I needed to be able to run CENTAUR for large problems, like a 1/4 reactor core simulation. However, speed was becoming less an issue than memory, as memory was still expensive. The machines actually supported up to 1GB, but I think we only had half of that. I remember that I would annoy Sebastion Aleman, in whose office the machine was located, every time I ran a large case, as the memory would start paging (writing to disk) and those disk drives where noisy.

SRS also had a couple of DEC VAX/VMS machines, and a DEC Ultrix machine. Ultrix was another flavor of Unix, but had a lot of differences between the SunOS and IBM AIX flavors I knew the best. But I still liked the VAXes, and they were my mainstay until we got the RS/6000 systems installed.

WSRC used an email system called “All-In-One” – it had a text-based user interface, and was designed largely for inter-office communications. However, it could send email to the outside world, send attachments, and was pretty much every thing one would need for email even today. It did not allow formatted text – that was still a few years off (a spin off of HTML), but I have always been of the opinion that formatted text in an email was an unneeded luxury. I also started using a POP-based email client named Eudora. I had all of my All-In-One email forwarded to a POP server set up at SRS, and did email from there. This was probably my first regular connection to what we now all call “the Internet.” I even got an email from Mikey Brady at ORNL, inviting me to come up to interview at Oak Ridge, as she was leaving and had suggested me as a possible new hire to replace her.

So early in 1993 I accepted the job at ORNL. I had some reservations though, as technologically it was actually a big step backwards from my point of view. They generally didn’t use email at all (Mikey was an exception), were doing most of there computing and development on IBM mainframes, and were almost entirely DOS and Windows based. However, when I had interviewed there where two large boxes in the hallway of the building – I later learned that these were two new RS/6000 machines, to be named ca01 and ca02. Still, I made it a condition of accepting the position that I would get to get a desktop Mac for my office. They had to check to see if a Mac would be compatible with their network (of course it would be – Apples were much more network saavy than Windows machines at the time). Once they verified this, they ordered me a Centris 650 (part of this mindless expansion of product line that the Jobs-less Apple Corp was spewing out – eventually the Centris line was renamed to Quadra to reduce the confusion over the wide variety of different models). There were even two versions of the Centris 650 – one without a floating point unit (we had been buying add-on FPUs at SRS), and one with the full 68040 chip, that had an integrated FPU on board. Still only a 25MHz clock speed, but with the FPU and a mammoth 230MB hard drive, I was in heaven! By the time I got to ORNL in April 1993, they had the two workstations installed and running, two more on the way, and we had a part time workstation support person Suzanne Walters (later Suzanne Willoughby) to help maintain the systems. As experienced as I already was on these systems (I had 6 years experience using and abusing Unix systems by this time), I quickly became a power user on the workstation. Many others stayed on the mainframes or used a PC for R&D as long as they could, so it took a while for the machines to become saturated. We ended up buying a few other flavors of UNIX machines – a Sun and an SGI machine, so we could test our software on other hardware platforms prior to release. We never had an HP system though, even though many of our external customers used this platform.

Cray X1ORNL was making a lot of progress in supercomputing at this time. The software we were developing was not appropriate for supercomputer applications, so we weren’t using that hardware, but the computer science folks and some of the earth science areas sure were. We had a Cray X1 – a beautiful machine, and a couple of clusters of workstations – one a cluster of DEC Alphas, the other a cluster of IBM RS/6000.  They had high-speed networking connections, which made them great for parallel processing, and ORNL was setting a lot of records with some of these machines.  We didn’t benefit from them directly, as we didn’t use those machines, but one time we benefitted in a big way by getting a “hand me down” system.  When the cluster of Alphas became too dated for supercomputing and they need the space for something newer and faster, we were able to acquire the cluster.  I forget exactly how big the Alpha cluster was, I want to say it was 30 nodes (30 machines networked together), but each node had four processors.  So we had a lot of computing power.  At least for us – the fact that we were actually using this dinosaur was amusing to the computer science folks at the lab.

I have noticed that I am not flying through time as fast as I did on my first blog or two in this category. When I started this, I figured I’d get 2-3 blogs out of it to get me up to present. But these were heady times, and I was learning a lot as computer technologies and I myself matured at about the same time. That plus the fact that I remember more from the last 20 years than the 30 that preceded that.  So I’ll cut it short here.  Next blog I’ll get into new architectures for the Mac, Unix on a Mac, parallel computing, and ORNL’s next generation of workstations.


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