Paying Homage to the VAX

Compaq Computer Corp.'s announcement last week that it was retiring the VAX minicomputer originally created by Digital passed largely unnoticed by the Web generation. That's too bad, because they owe a greater debt to the VAX than they know.

Acquired by Compaq in 1998, Digital reached its peak in the late 1980s on the strength of the VAX, a line of computers that ranged from what today we call workgroup servers to mainframe-like server clusters.

All of them ran Digital's operating system, VMS. You could write an application for a small MicroVAX and shift the software unchanged to more powerful VAXes as demand and load increased - "write once, run anywhere," long before Java was even an idea.

The company was pushing a wave of computing liberation. Their boxes were making what had been mainframe-based data more accessible and easier to use - "legacy access" and "application integration" before it was a trend.

Digital's founder, Ken Olsen, was a member of the MIT "mafia" that led one of the earliest waves of high-tech start-ups, companies that, in turn, were incubators for technical talent, who went on to create and staff still other companies. Microsoft was one company that benefited: VMS engineers, notably Dave Cutler, drove the creation of Windows NT.

Olsen was patronizingly derided for criticizing "personal" computers as being pretty useless to business. Now, at the start of a new century, his comments look prescient.

Olsen's point was that an isolated computer had limited value because the data created on it belonged to only one person. What companies needed, Olsen said, was a business computer, a computer that was attached to a network.

He was right then, and he's still right.

The VAX, almost from the start, was linked to other machines via Digital's DECnet scheme. Long before Sun turned "the network is the computer" into a marketing slogan, Digital had made it a reality.

Another forward-looking innovation was Digital software that yoked together groups of VAXes - "scalability" long before it was an e-commerce buzzword.

The VAX may be dead, but the principles it embodied are being enshrined in the Web.

- John Cox,

Senior editor, Infrastructure

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