The end of the road for Data General

EMC's bid for Data General will almost inevitably mean the end of another pioneering name in the IT industry. DG was founded in 1968 by Edson de Castro. He originally worked with Ken Olsen at DEC but fell out with the DEC founder over the architecture of that company's next machine.

Olsen wanted to keep extending the 12-bit PDP-8 architecture. De Castro wanted to move to a 16-bit design based on two 8-bit bytes. He left DEC in a huff when Olsen knocked back the design.

Starting Data General in 1968, de Castro had his 16-bit machine -- the Nova -- on the market the following year. The Nova started DG on a roll. Digital responded with the 16-bit PDP-11, but by then DG was well established. One of the early fans of the Nova was Steve Wozniak. He went on to design the first Apple computer and co-founded Apple with Steve Jobs.

The rivalry between DEC and DG was legendary, with the latter frequently taking swipes at its bigger competitor in cheeky advertising campaigns.

In the late 1970s, it was Digital's turn to steal a march over DG with the launch of the 32-bit VAX. DG responded with the MV series a couple of years later. The story of the design and development of the MV -- code-named Eagle -- was popularised in a book by Tracy Kidder, "The soul of a new machine". It painted a picture of nerdy computer designers lounging around in their jeans, t-shirts and running shoes.

But by then the writing was on the wall for the end of proprietary architectures and operating systems. Another 16-bit machine -- the personal computer -- started to sweep across the IT industry.

Like Digital, DG launched a range of 'me-too' PCs. The latter moved into open systems with its AViiON range of servers. DG eventually moved to Intel-based systems for the AViiON range, originally based on Motorola's 88open architecture.

The company pioneered the concept of RAID storage systems with the CLARiiON series of storage systems. It based those first systems on the academic paper that propounded the RAID concept. DG's RAID systems worked and worked well. Its AViiON servers were price-competitive, but DG never attained the critical mass necessary for it to survive on its own. Many of its competitors from the 1970s and 1980s -- Prime in the minicomputer market and ICL, Honeywell and Burroughs in the small commercial system business -- disappeared or were taken over.

Then last year, Compaq bought out DG's old rival -- Digital. This year another of its rivals from two decades ago -- Wang -- also disappeared.

With revenues flat at around $US1.5 billion annually, and struggling to return to profitability, DG has looked like a takeover prospect for the past couple of years. Talks had been going on for some time between DG and EMC. The acquisition for $US1.1 billion will give EMC an extended line of storage systems and put it into the hot market for open system and NT servers. By my reckoning there's just one competitor around from DG's startup days -- IBM.

John Costello, editor

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