Monday, June 11, 2012

So this should be an introduction...

For the sake of the politeness, the first entry of a new blog should be an introduction to myself and to what I intend to talk about in this space...

My name is Jordi Guillaumes. I've been an IT professional since 1987, and I've used all the hats from rank-and-file programmer to project manager. Nowadays I work as something called "software architect", which means basically I'm an underused engineer doing (or miss-doing) clerical work. But I disgress... I'm NOT going to talk about my current professional situation. I'm basically going to talk about the past. Or, better, about how to make part the past available TODAY.

Back in 1987, my first "professional" computer was a VAX 8250 running version 4.7 of the VMS operating system, made by Digital Equipment Corporation, which at that time was the second biggest computer manufacturer in the world (behind IBM). At the same site we had a PDP-11/60 running RSX11M-plus... to which I didn't really paid a lot of attention. Talk about youth mistakes... The PDP was retired in 1990 if my memories are right. The 8250 was substituted for other VAX machines until I left that position and went onto other ventures. It was the year 1992, so I was directly involved with VAX machines during 5 years.

After that I eventually ended working with the Big Iron, that is, IBM mainframes. Even being reluctant at the beginning, I have to say I really like the mainframe environment. Even with its evident drawbacks in usability, the concepts you find in the mainframe world are surprisingly similar to the ones you can find (and expect to find) in VMS. I'm thinking abour reliability, availability and scalability, or RAS. Anyways, it's worth to notice that VMS had in 1987 some features today's computers are still missing... but I'm disgressing again.

Due to a fortunate chain of events, I ended owning two of the VAX machines I used during those 5 years. A VaxServer 4000 model 200 and a MicroVax 3300. I've being mantaining those machines the best I've been able to, and at this day they are completely functional. Unfortunately, due to environmental issues (noise, heat and power drain) I can't power them up as much as I'd like to.

Getting those VAXen (and being single at that time :)) growed on me an interest for the classic machines. I got several more boxes: some vaxStations and a pair of old sun boxes from eBay. Right now I own a fully functional VaxStation 4000/60, a broken 4000/90 (which I intend to fix someday), a Sun Ultra Enterprise 1 and a Sun-3 SPARC machine. The suns are functional, but I don't 'power them up a lot either. I used to power up a lot the 4000/60...

... until I discovered SIMH and VAX simulation!

SIMH is a wonderful piece of software. It allows you to simulate a big range of "classic" computers. In the DEC line, it goes from the first machine built by the company (PDP-1) to the last architecture they invented (Alpha), although alpha simulation is still in the first stages of development. Specifically, it can simulate with near 100% fidelity two models of VAX (11-780 and 3900) and the whole range of PDP-11s. Add to this the fact that DEC gave permission to use most of their VMS software for free (as in beer) for hobbyist purposes. Now, everyone can run at home (or in the road) the software that used to power a lot of businesses and research in the 80's and early 90's (and even today). Naturally I toke advantage of that and right now I run several "virtual" VAX machines at home. There is even a hobbyist network we DEC enthusiast use to link up our machines, real and virtual. And there is plenty of things to look at beyond VAX and VMS. A virtual PDP11 running RSX? You've got it. A PDP-10 machine running TOPS-10, TOPS-20 or ITS? (those are 60-70's mainframe-class computers and operating systems)? No problem. You can even choose different emulations, like KLH10 or Ersatz-11. Some people has been so kind to pre-package different classical operating systems so you just have to decompress the pre-built disk images and you're set to go (of course, it's much more funny to do the full install yourself :)).

Why to do that? I've got two answers to that question:

  • Because we can. And it's tremendously funny!
  • To learn. To know different approaches technology could had chosen instead of going the Unix way.
My plan is to write basically about classical computing, specifically about the DEC lineage (although I could also write something about mainframes and mainframe simulation too). My posts will be absolutely random in time and content. There are lots of pages explaining how to set up different operating systems in the emulators, so I'll not be covering that. My plan is tell you about my experiences, about the problems I've found, and about how did I (hopefully) fix them.

So if you are interested or curious about classic computing, just stay tuned!

Oh, last but not least. English is not obviously my native language. So there will be grammar mistakes. Lots of them. If I make any grammar/spelling mistake so big it can make your eyeballs to explode, please, please, let me know so I can correct it and save some bucks in optometry to whatever one reads this. :)