Simulation and the Apollo Guidance Computer

Today, when developing embedded control systems, it is standard practice to test control algorithms against some kind of “world model”, “plant model” or “environment simulator”.

Using a simulated control system or a virtual platform running the actual control system code, connected to the world model lets you test the control system in a completely virtual and simulated environment (see for example my Trinity of Simulation blog post from a few years ago). This practice of simulating the environment for a control computer is long-standing in the aerospace field in particular, and I have found that it goes back at least to the Apollo program.

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Intel Blog: How 3dfx was Built on a Simulator

In the early 1990s, “PC graphics” was almost an oxymoron. If you wanted to do real graphics, you bought a “real machine”, most likely a Silicon Graphics workstation. At the PC price-point, fast hardware-accelerated 3D graphics wasn’t doable… until it suddenly was, thanks to Moore’s law. 3dfx was the first company to create fast 3D graphics for PC gamers.  To get off the ground and get funded, 3dfx had to prove that their ideas were workable – and that proof came in the shape of a simulator.  They used the simulator to demo their ideas, try out different design points, develop software pre-silicon, and validate the silicon once it arrived.  Read the full story on my Intel blog, “How Simulation Started a Billion-Dollar Company”, found at the Intel Developer Zone blogs.

A Replay Debugger from 1995!

2016-06-05_21-29-16A comment on my old blog post about the history of reverse execution gave me a pointer to a fairly early example of replay debugging. The comment pointed at a 2002 blog post which in turn pointed at a 1999 text which almost in passing describes a seemingly working record-replay debugger from 1995. The author was a Michael Elizabeth Chastain, of whom I have not managed to find any later traces.

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Fortress Rochester

fortress rochester

In a dusty bookshelf at work I found an ancient tome of wisdom, long abandoned by its previous owner. I was pointed to it by a fellow explorer of the dark arts of computer system design as something that you really should read. The book was “Fortress Rochester”, written by Frank Soltis, and published in 2001.

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Why DO Computers Fail?


I just found and read an old text in the computer systems field, “Why Do Computers Fail and What Can Be Done About It?” , written by Jim Gray at Tandem Computers  in 1985. It is a really nice overview of the issues that Tandem had encountered in their customer based, back in the early 1980s. The report is really a classic in the computer systems field, but I did not read it until now. Tandem was an early manufacturer of explicitly fault tolerant and highly reliable and available computers. In this technical report Jim Gray describes the basic principles of fault tolerance, and what kinds of faults happen in the field and that need to be tolerated.

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The First 64-bit Phone


Apple just released their new iPhone 5s, where the biggest news is really the 64-bit processor core inside the new A7 SoC. Sixty four bits in a phone is a first, and it immediately raises the old question of just what 64 bits gives you. We saw this when AMD launched the Opteron and 64-bit x86 PC computing back in the early 2000’s, and in a less public market the same question was asked as 64-bit MIPS took huge chunks out of the networking processor market in the mid-2000s. It was never questioned in servers, however.

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Reverse Execution History Updates

After some discussions at the S4D conference last week, I have some additional updates to the history and technologies of reverse execution. I have found one new commercial product at a much earlier point in time, and an interesting note on memory consistency.

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“Eagle” Cycle-Accurate Simulator Anno 1979

I recently read the classic book The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder. Even though it describes the project to build a machine that was launched more than 30 years ago, the story is still fresh and familiar. Corporate intrigue, managing difficult people, clever engineering, high pressure, all familiar ingredients in computing today just as it was back then. With my interesting in computer history and simulation, I was delighted to actually find a simulator in the story too! It was a cycle-accurate simulator of the design, programmed in 1979.

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Reverse History Part Three – Products

In this final part of my series on the history of reverse debugging I will look at the products that launched around the mid-2000s and that finally made reverse debugging available in a commercially packaged product and not just research prototypes. Part one of this series provided a background on the technology and part two discussed various research papers on the topic going back to the early 1970s. The first commercial product featuring reverse debugging was launched in 2003, and then there have been a steady trickle of new products up until today.

Originally published in January 2012. Post updated 2012-09-28 with a revised timeline for Lauterbach CTS. Post updated 2016-04-05 to include Mozilla RR. Post updated 2016-12-26 to add Simulics.

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Reverse History Part Two – Research

This is the second post in my series on the history of reverse execution, covering various early research papers. It is clear that reverse debugging has been considered a good idea for a very long time. Sadly though, not a practical one (at the time). The idea is too obvious to be considered new. Here are some papers that I have found dating from the time before “practical” reverse debug which for me starts in 2003 (as well as a couple of later entrants).

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Reverse History Part One

For some reason, when I think of reverse execution and debugging, the sound track that goes through my head is a UK novelty hit from 1987, “Star Trekkin” by the Firm. It contains the memorable line “we’re only going forward ’cause we can’t find reverse“. To me, that sums up the history of reverse debugging nicely. The only reason we are not all using it every day is that practical reverse debugging has not been available until quite recently.  However, in the past ten years, I think we can say that software development has indeed found reverse.  It took a while to get there, however. This is the first of a series of blog posts that will try to cover some of the history of reverse debugging. The text turned out to be so long that I had to break it up to make each post usefully short. Part two is about research, and part three about products.
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DV* 30 Years

On the very binary date of 11-11-11, my alma mater, the computer science (DV, for datavetenskap) education at Uppsala University celebrated its thirty years’ anniversary. It was a great classic student party in the evening with a nice mix of old alumni and fresh-faced students. Lots of singing and some nice skits on stage. Great fun, and my voice has still not recovered. It also got me thinking about it is that we really do as computer scientists.

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IBM i – I’m Impressed

From what little I had heard and read, the IBM AS/400 (later known as iSeries, and now known as simply IBM i) sounded like a fascinating system. I knew that it had a rich OS stack that contained most of the services a program needs, and a JVM-style byte code format for applications that let it change from custom processors to Power Architecture without impacting users at all.  It was supposedly business-critical and IBM-quality rock solid. But that was about it.

So when Software Engineering Radio episode 177 interviewed the i chief architect Steve Will, I was hooked. It turned out that IBM i was cooler than I imagined. Here are my notes on why I think that IBM i is one of the most interesting systems out there in real use.

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Steve Furber: Emulated BBC Micro on Archimedes on PC

I just read an interview with Steve Furber, the original ARM designer, in the May 2011 issue of the Communications of the ACM. It is a good read about the early days of the home computing revolution in the UK. He not only designed the ARM processor, but also the BBC Micro and some other early machines.

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Cubase64 – Impressive Impossible Retro

I recently read the “Cubase64 White Paper” by Pex Tufvesson. It is a fantastic piece of retro computing, where he makes a Commodore 64 do real-time audio effects on a sampled piece of music. There is a Youtube movie showing the demo in action. Considering how hard we worked in the early 1980s to make a computer make any kind of useful noise at all, this is an amazing feat. It is also a feat that I think would have been impossible at the time.

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Simple Machine, Hard to Simulate

In the June 2010 issue of Communications of the ACM, as well as the April 2010 edition of the ACM Queue magazine, George Phillips discusses the development of a simulator for the graphics system of the 1977 Tandy-RadioShack TRS-80 home computer.  It is a very interesting read for all interested in simulation, as well as a good example of just why this kind of old hardware is much harder to simulate than more recent machines.

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EDSAC – First Bootloader and Assembler

The EDSAC was an early computer in the mathematics laboratory at Cambridge in the UK. I have just read an old article on the machine and how it was programmed, from a 1998 issue of the IEEE Annals of the History of Computing.

There are many fascinating aspects to the machine and its utter simplicity, but one that struck me as I read the paper was that so many of the fundamental ideas of programming and practical computing were invented then and there. Indeed, the EDSAC was designed as a machine to experiment with programming, rather than as a machine for maximal computing performance.

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Pipeline Performance Simulator Anno 1960

I have just found what almost has to be the first cycle-accurate computer simulator in history. According to the article “Stretch-ing is Great Exercise — It Gets You in Shape to Win” by Frederick Brooks (the man behind the Mythical Man-Month) in the January-March 2010 issue of IEEE Annals of the History of Computing, IBM created a simulator of the pipeline for the IBM 7030 “Stretch” computer developed from 1956 to 1961 (photo from

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Matt’s Today in History: System/360

I am a regular listener to the Matt’s Today in History podcast. When Matt asked for contributions for this spring (in order to meet a goal of 500 podcasts before Summer) I did give some thought to what I could contribute. Looking over some books, I found one suitable Spring date: the launch of the IBM System/360 back in 1964. The resulting podcast is now live at Matt’s Today in History.

Please be kind to any mistakes… I am trying to paint a broad picture for a computer-history-ignorant audience here.

It was Twenty Years Ago Today

Unless you have been living under a rock I guess the media deluge has made it clear that it was twenty years ago on November ninth that the Berlin Wall fell. Wow. Without a doubt the most momentous and important event that I have lived through. Not at all on the topic of this blog, but important enough to write some personal recollections about.

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When does Hardware Acceleration make Sense in Networking?

q_stampYes, when does hardware acceleration make sense in networking? Hardware acceleration in the common sense of “TCP offload”. This question was answered by a very nicely reasoned “no” in an article by Mike Odell in ACM Queue called “Network Front-End Processors, Yet Again“.

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Book review: ZX Spectrum BASIC

sinclairspectrum-preI just rediscovered my first computer, a Sinclair ZX Spectrum (good picture) which I bought back in 1983 or 1984 (I have no trace of the exact date, unfortunately). The machine was a perfect machine to learn programming on in my opinion, consisting of little more than a Z80 processor with memory, bit-mapped display (with a famously odd-ball addressing scheme and color handling) and ultra-simple sound output and input. Most of my friends in the end bought Commodore C64 machines, which had more powerful graphics and sound hardware, but a processor that was much less fun to program.

The Spectrum came with a built-in BASIC interpreter that are up the bottom 16kB of the 64kB addressing space. The BASIC was actually fairly powerful and easy-to-use, and included a very fun programming textbook. I just reread that textbook, and it is quite strikingly well-written and manages to cover both basic computer-science-style programming and deep close-to-the-machine and real-time programming in a compact 150 pages. There is no credit to a particular author in the book I have (Swedish translation by a group of people at Ord & Form here in Uppsala), but an online scan credits Steven Vickers.

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Off-Topic: Vista, Laserwriter 12/640 PS, and FoxIt

laserwriter12640I have an old Apple LaserWriter 12/640 PS network printer at home that I bought back in 1997. In those days, I had a PowerBook G3 at 266 MHz, Windows NT was new, and my work computer was one of Sweden’s first 300 MHz Pentium II machines… since then, my home machines have moved from MacOS 8 to Windows NT 4 to Windows 2000 to Windows XP and now Windows Vista 32- and 64-bit. But the trusty LaserWriter remains, keeps printing, and is still on its first toner cartridge!

However, moving to Vista has made the printing bit harder.

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Virtual Platforms for Late Hardware and the Winds of History

As might be evident from this blog, I do have a certain interest in history and the history of computing in particular. One aspect where computing and history collide in a not-so-nice way today is in the archiving of digital data for the long term. I just read an article at Forskning och Framsteg where they discuss some of the issues that use of digital computer systems and digital non-physical documents have on the long-term archival of our intellectual world of today. Basically, digital archives tend to rot in a variety of ways. I think virtual platform technology could play a role in preserving our digital heritage for the future.

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The 1970 rule strikes again: Virtual Platform Principles in 1967

Being a bit of a computer history buff, I am often struck by how most key concepts and ideas in computer science and computer architecture were all invented in some form or the other before 1970. And commonly by IBM. This goes for caches, virtual memory, pipelining, out-of-order execution, virtual machines, operating systems, multitasking, byte-code machines, etc. Even so, I have found a quite extraordinary example of this that actually surprised me in its range of modern techniques employed. This is a follow-up to a previous post, after having actually digested the paper I talked about earlier.

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Virtual Platform by Virtualization Extensions — 1969

By means of a trip down virtualization history, I found a real gem in 1969 paper called A program simulator by partial interpretation, by Kazuhiro Fuchi, Hozumi Tanaka, Yuriko Manago, Toshitsugu Yuba of the Japanese Government Electrotechnical Laboratory. It was published at the second symposium on Operating systems principles (SOSP) in 1969. It describes a system where regular target instructions are directly interpreted, and any privileged instructions are trapped and simulated. Very similar to how VmWare does it for x86, or any other modern virtualization solution.

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