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.
IEEE Spectrum has an article in its May 2009 issue called “25 Microchips that shook the world“. Not long or deep, but an interesting mix of chips from the 1970s, 80s, 90s, and the 2000s. Recommended as light reading.
Yes, 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“.
I 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.
I 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.
Strongly recommended thread at stackoverflow: http://stackoverflow.com/questions/102714/what-was-your-first-home-computer is about your first home computer. Some good product shots, and also some really funny things inserted.
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.
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.
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.
Back in 1996, DVP celebrated its 15th anniversary. When looking through my digital and paper archive, I found this gem: The official badge and logo for the 1996 anniversary! We also produced some mouse pads with this logo on them, one of which I still use for my daily job. Pretty good quality I must say.
The picture shown here was saved as GIF for use on the web. But scarily enough, apart from a few more GIF files, I could not open or even understand the file type of most of the files from that time, only ten years ago. Our digital archives are not very robust — more on that below.
ArsTechnica is running a history of the Amiga, and in part 3, “The first prototype” they describe a really interesting “simulation” solution for the custom chips in the first Amiga. This is in 1982-83, and there are no VHDL or Verilog simulators, nor any other EDA tools as we know them today. Even if they were, the Amiga company would not have been able to afford them. So in order to test their design, the Amiga engineers built chip replicas using breadboards and discrete logic chips. All in all, 7200 chips and a very large numbers of wires. Quite fascinating stuff, and they did manage to interface the main 68000 CPU to the breadboards and get a fully functional if a bit slow simulation of a complete Amiga computer with all its unique custom chips.