Feb 112011

I was saddened to hear that computer industry pioneer Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), died on Sunday, a few weeks shy of his 85th birthday.

Under his 35-year leadership as CEO, Ken Olsen built Digital from US $70,000 in seed money in 1957 to become the world’s second-largest computer company with upwards of $14B in sales and 120,000 employees in more than 95 countries. In 1986, Fortune magazine named Ken “America’s most successful entrepreneur.”

Following Ken’s vision, starting with the PDP-1 in the 1960s, Digital created an entirely new segment of the computer industry with its small, powerful, and high-quality “minicomputers.” The minicomputer quickly became an alternative to the multimillion-dollar mainframe and gained favor in laboratories, academia, engineering, and other industries.

Beyond the size and price differential of the mini, DEC pioneered the concepts behind interactive computing and set industry standards in programming languages, operating systems, network architecture, application software, peripherals, component and circuit technology, manufacturing processes, business practices, and more (but alas, not marketing).

One quote I read on a ZDNet blog remembers it this way: “Modern, digital natives could not possibly understand how world-changing interactive computers were. You would type something and the computer would actually respond. Rather than giving your card deck to an operator, interactive computing immediately established a relationship between user and the machine.”

Having spent 17 years of my career in software at DEC, it is these other innovations that I remember the most. Development at DEC, actually called “software engineering” was just that, engineering. We had real architects and real architectures, real designs, real plans, and real processes for carrying them out. I’m constantly amazed at the lack of architecture, design, and engineering that I frequently see at companies today, and which don’t compare to what we did at DEC 30 years ago.

Many of you remember the VAX (Virtual Address eXtension) computer and the VMS (Virtual Memory System) operating system. The VAX architecture evolved from its initial model 780 to the 750, 730, 8000 series, 9000 series, MicroVax I and II, VAXStation, etc., all running the same operating system and same applications. Soon memory space started to get scarce and, in 1986, DEC came out with the 64-bit VAX Alpha processor, VMS supported both 32 and 64 bits simultaneously, and all the same applications ran on both. Now that was an architecture. I always wondered what the big deal was when Windows finally did the same thing just a few years ago.

The concept of “eat your own dog food” was standard operating procedure at DEC. We did our jobs using DEC software on DEC hardware. Although I sometimes joked that VMS was the world’s best operating system for building operating systems, we really learned a lot about quality by following this principle.

Of course, DEC will also be remembered for failing to keep pace with the changing computer industry, and despite all of his accomplishments, Ken will be remembered for a few guffaws. In 1977, he is infamous for saying, “There is no reason for any individual to have a computer in his home,” though in fairness, he was referring to having the computer run the house, with automated doors, faucets, and such. And when open systems were all the marketing rage, another famous quote was “Unix is snake oil,” which perhaps it was at the time, but an important trend was clearly missed. Ultimately, Ken stepped down and passed the reigns on to a younger generation, but DEC was never able to regain its leadership position.

Nowadays, if you meet someone (like me) who used to work at DEC, in addition to reminiscing about the good old days and some grumbling about its decline, we really learned about architecture and how to build quality stuff. Thanks, Ken!


Mike Rosen

Michael Rosen has more than 20 years technical leadership experience architecting, designing, and developing software products and applications.


  3 Responses to “Ken Olsen: Remembering a Pioneer”

  1. avatar

    Hi Mike,

    I see you quoted Ken Olsen as saying that “Unix is snake oil”. In fact I think you will find that what he said (several times) amounted to “the belief that Unix is the solution to all compatibility problems is snake oil”. Some people who misquote him do it from sheer ignorance, or because they honestly believe that what they read in someone’s blog or (worse still) in a PC magazine must be true. Others misquote Ken because they resent anyone who resisted the onward march of Unix in any way, and feel that putting those rather foolish words into his mouth will make him look foolish.

    As I recall it was not Unix itself that he described as snake oil but a set of naive and idealistic beliefs about it. Ken had many strengths, but one of his biggest weaknesses was an inability to understand the irrationality of other people’s thinking. Technically, I don’t believe that Unix or Linux, even today, is any better than VMS. In some ways it may still fall short. And we probably still haven’t seen a processor architecture superior to Alpha. But that’s not the point. People wanted to believe in open computing, and didn’t want to be “locked in” to any particular vendor of hardware or software. So they bought Unix, probably on Sun hardware, so they could later migrate to other hardware if they wished. But then… they never did! They stayed with Sun, and if they wanted HP or IBM they bought more boxes from those vendors. Having an all-Sun shop solved a lot of compatibility problems, but in what way was that a better solution than an all-DEC shop – or for that matter an all-IBM shop? And having a mixture of Sun, HP, IBM, Silicon Graphics, and other Unix systems really did not solve all compatibility problems, otherwise the evolution of networking and middleware could have stopped in about 1990 – which is when it was just getting under way. Same with Oracle – people bought Oracle instead of Rdb, because they were thrilled that it “ran on 40 platforms” (not counting the famous slide projector!) But most of them never even tried to port it; they just kept it humming away on the hardware they first installed it on.

    Ken’s great failing, I think, was not understanding how illogical people can be. The idea of pricing a soft drink differently in different places, depending on what the market would bear, the temperature, and the shortage of alternatives, would surely not have appealed to him. DEC lacked superb marketing, and the ability to present the same product offerings in different ways to different market segments. Instead, as it sold more and more to banks, government, aerospace and other wealthy customers, it forgot how to appeal to the low end – customers who could just about afford a MicroVAX, but not all the additional paid-for software they wanted. DEC gradually drove itself ashore, like a beached whale, increasingly dependent on rich customers whose “natural” supplier was IBM. That’s what you get when you turn your back on the people who helped you to rise in the world.

    Tom Welsh

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  3. Hi Tom,

    Nice to hear from you, although under a sad circumstance. I was hoping that my respect and admiration where what stuck with readers from my post. Thanks for your insight into the quote, which I did try to put into the context of marketing hype. By the way, I was at DEC working on VMS at the time it occurred.

    I did a little more research. Here’s what I found:

    Asked to comment on the recent uproar over the AT&T and Sun Microsystems Inc. Unix development alliance, Olsen without mentioning particular companies, likened some vendors of Unix products to “snake oil” salesmen and said the claim that Unix will resolve incompatibility problems within multi-vendor networks is “a naive idea.” “It still won’t resolve the problem of interchangeability”, he said, adding that the operating system is just one of the several components needed to achieve compatibility. He cited windowing ability and communications protocols as two other major components. Olsen went on to call Unix “one of the most proprietary operating systems”. But he expressed suport for standards and development of the POSIX interface, saying that will resolve the problem of making disparate operating systems compatible. “But that’s the unimportant part of making things interchangeable”, he said. Compatibility “doesn’t come by stamping Unix on the label. It doesn’t solve everything; there is no magic. It’s snake oil, absolute snake oil,” he said.

    In any case, DEC was indeed a great company to work for. We all have fond memories of it and Ken, and are saddened by the loss of both.

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