Wednesday, January 25, 2006

End of an era

On Sunday, I retired our venerable Alpha server to which are connected about 50 users. This marks the end of an era, the Digital Equipment Company (DEC) era.

The first time I ever had contact with a computer was with a dialup connection (via leased line) to a DEC PDP-11, sometime in the winter of 1982. In those days, about twenty kibbutzim (maybe even more) connected via leased lines to the PDP, which was kept in a regional centre; one terminal per kibbutz. Although it wasn't quite love at first sight, it didn't take long for me to appreciate the computer and its logic. I spent the next five years hacking via the leased line, trying to figure out how the PDP worked, whilst at the same time learning how to write programs. Snob that I was, I found the BASIC language (which was the system language on the PDP) to be inadequate for my needs (and this is from a beginning programmer), but quickly felt at home with the Pascal implementation available.

In 1987, my kibbutz finally bought its own computer, a clone of the PDP. I was in heaven! First of all, we set up six or seven terminals which was a great improvement, as before every user had to use the same terminal. Then I could set up user menus and start running all kinds of 'sophisticated' applications. When I did some consulting on another kibbutz which didn't have someone driven like myself, it became clear how much more advanced we had become.

A few years after that, my family moved to another kibbutz which had its own VAX, a step up from the PDP. For the first few years, I had little to do with the administration of this computer, but gradually I found myself running the computer more and more until one day I was the de facto system administrator.

Then we upgraded from the mini-VAX to an Alpha (I don't recall which model) and then after a few more years we upgraded to yet another Alpha (800). This has been running perfectly for the last seven years, although passing in that time from cutting edge to obsolete.

The only problem is that the Alpha is slow - or rather, the fast processor can't cope with the huge amount of data which is thrown at it. Also, parts are very expensive; for the last few months I have been dreading having to add a new disk. This would have to be SCSI with a capacity of only 9GB but with a cost of nearly $1,000.

We have now moved to a Compaq Proliant running RedHat Linux 7.3, and I reckon that reports are being produced at least ten times faster.

The best thing about the Alpha was the Open VMS operating system and the DCL - Digital Command Language - (shell in unix-speak) which enabled me to write all kinds of wonderful batch files. Supporting a multitude of users with widely varying needs, DCL enabled me to automate a large amount of our work. But due to the speed problem, I often found myself juggling batch jobs in order to best use the time available.

The new computer comes with an emulation of DCL which is a scaled down version of the real thing. There are also an unknown number of gotchas which I am discovering of a daily basis: Sunday was an extremely hard day, Monday was hard, and yesterday was positively relaxing.

So with a certain amount of sentimentality, I mourn the passing of the Digital era, and welcome the Linux era.