“Storage Dreams” and the greatest things since sliced bread!

November 12, 2009
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Last week I attended the 16th Annual Computer Old-Timers Lunch, and it always provides an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the Australian IT industry and the industry more broadly. To qualify as an “old-timer” you must have worked with paper tape, punch cards or floppy disks. But even with that qualification I am at least a “second generation” ITer and it is always a privilege to be in the presence of some of our pioneers, “the first generation”.

Australia’s first computer (CSIRAC) and the world’s fourth, was built at the University of Sydney in 1949 and turned off in 1964 (before I even started) and Australia was the world’s third nation to enter the digital age. http://www.csiro.au/science/ps4f.html

CSIRAC has also been referred to as “the machine that changed the world”. It “was a supercomputer for its time – revolutionising everything from weather forecasting to banking, and playing the first ever computer music.” http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/csirac/default.htm

Back then, research aspirations focused on finding a way to store the instructions in computer memory along with the data so that the computer could respond to more complex instructions.



Last week I attended the 16th Annual Computer Old-Timers Lunch, and it always provides an opportunity to reflect on the achievements of the Australian IT industry and the industry more broadly. To qualify as an “old-timer” you must have worked with paper tape, punch cards or floppy disks. But even with that qualification I am at least a “second generation” ITer and it is always a privilege to be in the presence of some of our pioneers, “the first generation”.

Australia’s first computer (CSIRAC) and the world’s fourth, was built at the University of Sydney in 1949 and turned off in 1964 (before I even started) and Australia was the world’s third nation to enter the digital age. http://www.csiro.au/science/ps4f.html

CSIRAC has also been referred to as “the machine that changed the world”. It “was a supercomputer for its time – revolutionising everything from weather forecasting to banking, and playing the first ever computer music.” http://www.abc.net.au/science/slab/csirac/default.htm

Back then, research aspirations focused on finding a way to store the instructions in computer memory along with the data so that the computer could respond to more complex instructions. Until that was achieved operators sat at a separate console and programs were fed into the computer on punched paper tapes. This was their “Storage Dream”.Storage_Dream_Blog

“If a computer is finding its own way, you can put in branched or conditional instructions – ‘If this is negative, do this’,” says Thorne. “The computer can actually weave its way through calculations autonomously. Once it’s set up, it can run without intervention. This was the great dream.”

By the time I got into the industry, there were still only postgraduate studies in computing, none for the undergraduate, but instructions could be stored in memory. To test my programs (on a CDC 3200) I would submit two batch jobs of cards a day with my modified program – and if it crashed I got a memory dump to work out what went wrong. This was certainly a big incentive to get your code right!

My “Storage Dream” came from the second machine I worked on, a PDP-8. To get the machine started I had to “key in” the boot instructions and I loaded my programs into the computer via “shoe boxes” of paper tape – but at least they got stored on small magnetic tapes and I didn’t have to do it every time I needed to run the program. Here’s a Web link to a video of the booting of a DEC PDP-8 console. [Thanks to David Gesswein of pdp8online.com, who produced the video in 2008.] So for me, when the PDP-11 came out with a push button start I thought this was the “greatest thing since sliced bread”!

Our industry has continued to progress at a rapid rate and today the old problem or “Storage Dream” of bringing data and instructions together as fast as possible continues to drive invention and product enhancements. It came at a cost though – that of data management and storage management overheads. A full time job for many! At least all I had to do was read and write to flat files on tape in a sequential manner. The only overhead was a dual tape read/write for backup/recovery.

Today the “Storage Dream” solution continues to evolve as it solves both the physical means through solid state devices (for now at least) and database management systems to automate the management of data for optimal access and utilisation. For example, in the data warehousing context, Teradata has announced the world’s first solid state data warehouse appliance for hyper-analytics.

While these products are just another step along the “Storage Dream” journey we have all been frustrated by some aspect of our work with computers and each of us will have our “Dream” app. or invention that we claim to be “the greatest thing since sliced bread” – and believe me that was a great invention – so what is your dream app. or invention?

Christine Page-Hanify

 

*Image Source: www.abc.net.au