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Computer Industry Mourns DEC Founder Ken Olsen

Soulskill posted more than 3 years ago | from the rest-in-peace dept.

Digital 172

alphadogg writes "Kenneth Olsen, the computer industry pioneer who co-founded and led minicomputer king Digital Equipment Corp. for 35 years, died at the age of 84 on Sunday in Indianapolis. As DEC's leader, Olsen oversaw the company's epic battles vs. IBM and its mainframes for the hearts and business of IT shops – a fight DEC eventually lost as the era of fast, cheap and networked PCs took hold in the 1980s and 1990s. During its heyday, DEC's PDPs, VAXes and DECnet network technology became staples in many organizations, and today's IT industry remains filled with companies whose founders once worked at DEC or with its gear. Digital was acquired in 1998 by Compaq. Dan Bricklin, co-creator of the VisiCalc spreadsheet and DEC alum, tweeted: 'Ken Olsen is in the elite club of tech founders w/Gates & Jobs, and set the stage for them. What he did we take for granted today.'"

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Soul of a new machine (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35135738)

And now his soul is can't complete joke

Re:Soul of a new machine (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35135750)

That was a good book especially about how they debugged the hardware. People don't do it as much these days.

Re:Soul of a new machine (1)

Chapter80 (926879) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135866)

Too bad that book [] was about Data General, and not DEC.

The book opens with a turf war between two computer design groups within Data General Corporation, a minicomputer vendor in the 1970s. Most of the senior designers are assigned the "sexy" job of designing the next generation machine, which will be done in North Carolina. Their project (code-named "Fountainhead") is to give Data General a machine to compete with the new VAX computer from Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), which is starting to take over the new 32-bit minicomputer market.

Re:Soul of a new machine (1)

Lucas123 (935744) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138188)

Actually, the book is about a turf war between Data General and DEC, and it involves corporate espionage. So, it is about DEC too -- just saying.

Re:Soul of a new machine (1)

An ominous Cow art (320322) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138528)

By a coincidence, before I heard about Ken Olsen's passing, I re-read "vmsbook.pdf" yesterday, which is a very cheery and optimistic history of VAXes and VMS up until 1997. Very sad that Compaq took them over the following year.
Here [] is a link to the PDF.

Farewell (2)

Chrisq (894406) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135772)

Your company allowed me to play my first ever video game, Lunar Lander on the GT40 graphics terminal []

Re:Farewell (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135916)

I have been looking around for a first person lunar lander but so far no such luck. I installed a simple 2D lunar lander game from the android marker but its not as good as that 1969 effort.

Re:Farewell (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136022)

I used to playLunar Lander on a VS-11 and then a VSV-11 Graphics Device.

So long Ken. Thanks for the memories.

Re:Farewell (2)

tverbeek (457094) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136342)

My first contact with a "real" computer (via an acoustically-coupled modem in high school) was with a DEC PDP, and I cut my programming teeth learning Fortran and Pascal on a DEC VAX in college. That may not be as significant to the world as producing the hardware that Unix was built on, but it was important to me.

Re:Farewell (1)

sunzoomspark (1960660) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136578)

My first programming lesson was with an acoustic coupler and a hard copy terminal connected to a DEC PDP 11 system. The first piece of computer hardware I owned was a VT-100 terminal, and the DEC 20 they had at Wesleyan was like HAL from 2001 to me at the time. The pacsal compiler was a nightmare, though. Ken Olsen and DEC taking on IBM was an inspiration. Cheers to Ken Olsen!

Re:Farewell (1)

bareman (60518) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136622)

It wasn't long after those Fortran, Pascal, and COBOL classes that we were administering said DEC VAX computers. I think I can still find a record of one of my DECUS program submissions ("MCLS" #V00200) out there somewhere. That was back when we called "open source" by the name "public domain".

Similar (1)

whoda (569082) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137992)

I played my first game of Dungeons & Dragons at the DEC office in Quad Cities, Iowa.

It was quite the experience for a little kid.

Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (3, Interesting)

Dynamoo (527749) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135784)

One unexpected legacy of the DEC years is that Windows NT is very heavily influenced by Digital's VMS OS. When Microsoft wanted to build an enterprise-ready OS, they basically hired DEC's engineers to design it for them (for example Dave Cutler [] ). So even under the hood of Windows 7, some of that core architecture is directly influenced by DEC's work.

I do wonder what would have happened if DEC hadn't been taken over by the dead hand of Compaq. After all, IBM still sell plenty of big iron systems and there's a definite need these days for highly reliable and secure systems - of the type DEC made - for eCommerce applications.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (2)

AlecC (512609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135960)

I think that DEC had lost it long before they were taken over by Compaq. One thing was cosmetic: they insisted that they were called "Digital" instead of the name everybody knew and loved them by, "DEC". But more importantly, they put their effort into increasingly large VAXes instead of the low end machines they had made their fortune on. They killed off the PDP-11 line, and had to bring it back because of customer demand. They has made their fortune on relatively simple boxes that people could use and abuse to their particular needs: you simply couldn't do that with their big VAXes. But you could do it with PCs, and people did, They invented more sophisticated internal busses, so it became much harder to build a board to add in to a system, at just the time the PC was making available a standard (albeit pretty crappy) bus for everybody. Basically, they left their territory and tried to move into IBM's at a time when IBM was losing it as well.

When I started, every engineer had a shelf or purple PDP-11 handbooks, even if they didn't used them. So when you were designing something, you could look up the DEC solution. Later, everybody had a shelf-full of PC book. But nobody who didn't really need it had a shelf-full of Vax book.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (1)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136036)

Yup, it was odd that the summary said they lost the battle against IBM - they didn't lose it, the battle became irrelevant in the face of cheap commodity PCs. Mainframes are still very profitable for IBM, but they've gone from being the way that any company that needs computing power supplies it to being a very small niche market.

The Alpha did well though. There was a time when anyone who wanted a fast computer got an Alpha. Even with the overhead of emulating x86, it could often run Windows applications at a similar speed to Intel's top chips, and for UNIX systems. The last Alpha machine lost its spot in the top 10 supercomputers a decade after they stopped designing new Alpha chips. Unfortunately, they (HP by then) bought into the Itanium hype and outsourced CPU development to Intel, who then failed to deliver.

VMS still has some features that make a 'modern' UNIX system look positively archaic, but it runs on VAX, Alpha, and Itanium, so no one learns how to use it and even companies with a problem that VMS would be the perfect solution for are unlikely to have someone who knows about VMS and can suggest it.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136058)

they put their effort into increasingly large VAXes instead of the low end machines they had made their fortune on

Not to mention they went out of their way to cripple the low end machines they did build, for example the proprietary formatted RX50 floppies used in the Rainbow. What a great way to kill your own market.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (1)

An ominous Cow art (320322) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138234)

But nobody who didn't really need it had a shelf-full of Vax book.

I still have a couple boxes of orange VMS manuals in binders, from when I did a VMS version upgrade for the robotics lab where I worked. Rather than toss the obsolete manuals, I brought them home... 24 years ago. And the last time I touched or logged in to a VMS system was probably 22 years ago.

Except that VMS was rock solid, NT - not so much (1)

Viol8 (599362) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136168)

Something obviously got lost in the translation to x86.

Re:Except that VMS was rock solid, NT - not so muc (1)

Massacrifice (249974) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138486)

While you can criticize Windows all you want for the baroque Win32 API and it's assorted GUI and userland tools, there's no denying that the kernel itself is quite robust. In fourteen years (since NT 4.0), I've never seen a Windows machine crash that wasn't due to faulty hardware or bad third party drivers, a lord knows I've seen, used and setup a LOT of Windows boxen. For the amount of features and hardware it supports, I think it is an achievement that deserves more respect than it gets.

That's where I recognize the DEC engineering talent.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (4, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136340)

They didn't just "hire DEC engineers". David was one of the architects of VMS, and there were serious lawsuits about the theft of copyrighted material and trade secrets, which were settled out of court. (Why do you think NT ran on Alpha chips for a long time?)

DEC thought they were better off continuing to innovate instead of trying to bring down Microsoft's law-breaking new monopoly in court. But meanwhile Intel was stealing the Alpha CPU technologies for the Pentium chip: between the loss of both of those leading edge technologies, and their less effective but still cost-effective re-unication by the thieves in the "Wintel" architectures, DEC had little left to work with.

DEC made a lot of fabulous technologies which I found useful in the lab and in industry, but they weren't good at protecting their best assets from intellectual theft, and they refused to embrace the open source approach of various UNIX and later Linux technologies, and it left them without a large enough market to continue to build such wonderful hardware.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35137138)

For what it's worth, DEC's work is still alive in big iron. Compaq (or was it HP after buying up Compaq?) had sold DEC Alpha tech to Intel, which was the basis for the Itanium2 - while it's not exactly in a market position worthy of DEC being a distant third behind Sparc and Power, it's alive, and it's the only Big Iron arch VMS and it's children (NT) run on.

And HP has been taking care of VMS, technically speaking, their flagship product is a DEC-designed OS (OpenVMS) running on DEC-derivewd hardware (Itanium2 SuperDomes), and hell, as you mentioned, for better or worse, DEC's influence is alive in NT.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (1)

sunderland56 (621843) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138158)

Well, having worked on both VMS and NT (why yes, I am that old, thanks for asking) I don't see the similarity. Pretty much *all* modern operating systems show similarities, after years of everyone "borrowing" ideas from others.

The biggest legacy, to me, of DEC is Linux. Without a certain PDP-7 computer and some extremely brilliant engineers, Unix would never have existed, and Linus and his buddies would have nothing to "borrow" from.

Re:Windows NT = VMS (sort of) (1)

makapuf (412290) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138198)

fun fact (maybe just a coincidence after all, or an urban legend, but fun anyway ) : It was said that Windows NT naming comes from VMS.
(hint : VMS successor => WNT)

Rest In Peace, Mr Olsen (2, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35135800)

I didn't had that much the priviledge of meeting your personnally, I only have a few memories of your very common car lost 'somwhere' on the parking lot at ZK-01 and you, just looking for it. Or spending a much-than-expected time you spent with the FS engineers setting up the systems for DECville in Cannes. Or even you fixing the washing machine of your neighbour's mother which neighbour was a DEC employee who almost had a stroke when she saw her CEO kneeled in soapy water in her basement. Obviously, you made some mistakes; refusing to consider the growing PC market, and also disregarding the Unix market. Well, the only individuals who do not make mistakes are those who do nothing. You've been a great engineer, a great boss, a great man. Have a nice flight in the wild blue. At least I can say that I had to real bosses in my life : you and Seymour. The last point you share is quite not the one I like most.

Justin Bonsey public Google profile (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35135850)

Thanks for banning me, Justin, and hiding behind WP7 Marketplace support. Good luck with your "JOB". And if you didn't want the world to see this, you should not have made it. []


[URL=][IMG=][/IMG][/URL] []

Had a good innings (2)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135880)

84 or as I prefer to say it, 124.

Re:Had a good innings (1)

Dynamoo (527749) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135968)

Oh I really hate Octal. At least you can normally tell hex from decimal quite easily..

Re:Had a good innings (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135990)

160010 400
160020 410
160030 420
160040 430
160050 440
160060 450
160070 460
160100 470
160110 500

and so on. Its the bus address and interrupt vectors for DZ11 MUX cards at my last job. Sorry, its just burned into my brain and I couldn't resist. On the PDP you could pretty much assume that a number would be octal, if it had anything to do with the hardware. If a card failed and brought the CPU down the register dump would almost always give you the bus address of the card.

Re:Had a good innings (1)

hitmark (640295) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136028)

Heh, try keeping up with a distro that do its release numbering in octal...

Re:Had a good innings (1)

dmbasso (1052166) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136166)

That's the reason for using zero as prefix... if he used 0124 it would be explicit.

Re:Had a good innings (1)

Chrisq (894406) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135978)

Ah I had forgotten DEC's love of octal, even after everyone else used hex. Then there were the SIXBIT and SIXBITZ [] character strings yo used to pack six characters into a word (a good solid 36 bit word, even back in 1963 [] ).

Re:Had a good innings (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35138540)

Well octal was perfectly reasonable on the PDP-8s; but on
the PDP11s was nothing but a pain in the butt!

Re:Had a good innings (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136472)

0124 that is.

DEC scared IBM in the 80's (4, Interesting)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135928)

I remember reading an article in The Economist about DEC and their VAXes in the 80's. The point was the a VAX was cheap enough that a low level executive could approve the expenditure. An IBM mainframe purchase would require approval at the top executive level of the company. IBM responded by bringing out a mini-mainframe called the 9370 as a "VAX killer," but it was a flop. The minicomputer was killed by PCs. However, IBM still makes a lot of money with their mainframes, with folks who have tons of data, and need high availability: like banks and insurance companies.

For DEC they could have gone downscale to PCs, but the profit margins are too low: it's a commodity item. IBM doesn't build PCs anymore; they sold their PC business to Lenovo. Or they could have gone upscale, to compete with IBM mainframes. In the 90's, big Sun servers were causing IBM some grief. But we all see what happened to Sun.

I like to have choice. So the more vendors that are out there, the better. When I look at the passenger airplane industry, there are only two choices: Airbus or Boeing. I would welcome more competition, from say, Japan or Russia. Russia!?!?! Well, their Soyuz is the only way to get into space now, so they could probably be able to build good passenger airplanes.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135942)

Well into the 1990s the IBM minicomputer ran OS/2. It was okay as a department level server. DEC also had failures at the low end. There was the MicroVAX and a micro VMS to go along with it, but technology caught up too fast so cut down systems were soon not required.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

sphealey (2855) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135982)

> Well into the 1990s the IBM minicomputer ran OS/2.

System/1, System/34, System/36, and the AS/400 most certainly did not use OS/2 as their operating system(s).


Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136012)

No but they had kind of a high end PC running OS/2 as a server. Notes at my site used AIX as the main server with this smaller OS/2 boxes scattered around. Wide area networks then weren't what they are now.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136048)

Well into the 1990s the IBM minicomputer ran OS/2

Huh? When did IBM ever run OS/2 on anything other than PCs?

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136106)

Well into the 1990s the IBM minicomputer ran OS/2

Huh? When did IBM ever run OS/2 on anything other than PCs?

Maybe I was too liberal with the term "minicomputer". I was referring to the high end PC hardware which OS/2 was deployed on to function as a local or department level server.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136286)

Actually IBM had plans for a micro-kernel called IBM Workplace OS or WPOS: [] . One of the ideas was to get it running on other non-PC architectures, so OS/2 could run on them. It was developed at IBM Boca Raton in Florida, where OS/2 came from. They actually shipped a product, OS/2 Warp 4, that ran on the micro-kernel.

I talked to an ex-IBM AIX developer years after the whole project was shit-canned. He told me he attempted to use WPOS with AIX on their POWER platform. He told me how the system struggled with booting, and then rolled over and died. As a true Texan (where POWER and AIX systems were developed), he added that if that system had been a horse, he would have shot it in the head to take it out of its misery.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

Dynamoo (527749) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136086)

They did tinker in the PC market, mostly through rebranded Olivetti systems.. but the only type of customer who would probably buy them would have been a DEC shop already.. but then getting a decent VT emulator running was very difficult, and the good ones (e.g. KEA ZSTEM) were expensive, which meant then those VTs were hard to shift.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136126)

but then getting a decent VT emulator running was very difficult

Ha! a former co-worker of mine (he could be reading) wrote a VT compatible emulator for windows. He went by the username "lec" so his emulator was called LECTerm.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (3, Informative)

Smallpond (221300) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136178)

For DEC they could have gone downscale to PCs, but the profit margins are too low: it's a commodity item. IBM doesn't build PCs anymore; they sold their PC business to Lenovo.

You have forgotten the DEC Rainbow. But that's ok, everyone else has also forgoten the Rainbow.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (2)

dan_linder (84060) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136830)

You have forgotten the DEC Rainbow. But that's ok, everyone else has also forgoten the Rainbow.

Which is sad really. It was a dual-processor system - a Zilog Z80 and an Intel 8080 CPU. When it ran CP/M the Z80 did everything, but when it ran MS-DOS the 8080 was the primary CPU and the Z80 handled the IO.

The architecture was even better thought through and didn't break up the RAM like the IBM PC did (hence the 640K "limit"). I remember booting my Rainbow 100B and getting 720KB of usable RAM without trying very hard.

Sadly, the only real games that got ported to it were the Zork line of Infocom games, and a few DEC written graphical games. (Anyone remember "SCRAM"? Probably not the most marketable game since the objective was to descend to the lowest level of a failing nuclear reactor and "scram it" to keep it from going critical...)

Ken, you have no idea how much your "little company" got me started in computers. Thank you!


Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

An ominous Cow art (320322) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138370)

My high school received a Rainbow the year after I graduated. I recall going in to look at it or help set it up. I believe it had a Pascal compiler, though I might be misremembering that.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35138508)

For graphical games, someone ported Tetris -- no music, but still addictive enough.

I believe fully stuffing the RAM board would get you 960K. I could find bulk chips pretty cheap at the local electronics supply store.

There were all sorts of nifty aftermarket addons, like an actual battery-powered clock (so you didn't have to set the time every time you booted!) and a pricey 286 board. When you had the 286 board installed, you could actually run a version of Windows 3.0! -- though the mouse had to share the serial port with the modem via a switchbox.

There was also a way of adding a larger-capacity 1/2-height HD (30MB?), and a DD 3-1/2" floppy. I think the only thing I never managed to find was the ethernet card (which supposedly sucked anyhow). By the time I finished tricking the whole thing out, I wound up buying a 486 to do actual work on.

I still have the whole thing up in my attic, untouched for, oh, 18 years now. LA50 printer, and even a touchscreen monitor for those Pro 350 boxes they provided for interactive laserdisc units (forgot what they called those). Sometimes I'm tempted to drag it back down and see if it'll still boot, but with that metal vertical stand, it must weigh 50lbs...

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

JoeD (12073) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137476)

Oh, I remember the Rainbow.

Q: What's the difference between a DEC Rainbow and a bowling ball?

A: There's more software for the bowling ball.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136462)

Actually it was the PDP that got introduced under the nose of IBM. That's why it was called "Peripheral Data Processor", it could fly under the radar as office equipment. VAX was much later, after the DecSystem 10 and 20 (odd 36-bit machines).

The Dec Rainbow was the first DEC PC has a "real" PC unlike the previous Robin (a VT100 with the guts replaced with a PC board). That machine was dual processor and coud be taken apart and put back together with a dime. Very cool architecture. But DEC just didn't take the PC as a serious business.

Another bad move was not licensing VMS for machines other than the VAX. It was felt that doing that would eat into VAX sales. It was always said that people didn't buy a VAX, they bought VMS. I saw VMS running on an early Sun workstation so porting was possible. Olsen turned down Sun's request, they turned to UNIX instead.

I believe that DEC floundered after Olsen retired. It was such a one-man company that no one really had what it took to take over. I worked for DEC for some years but got out when I saw the writing on the wall.

One aside, Ken would often answer his own phone. It shocked me the first time that happened!

Olsen was an engineer with an technical mind in a world, at the time, dominated by silly marketing types. Sad to hear of his passing.


Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

Lawrence_Bird (67278) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136674)

I had the pleasure of working on a DEC 2060/TOPS-20 system during my college days. It was a great system to program and learn on and even had an Algol compiler. It also was crashable by using recursive batch jobs to fill the disks to 100%. There are a number of aficionados who are still running 'twenex' systems and most, if not all, the core stuff is available if you want to set one of your own up.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

Stormwatch (703920) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136514)

When I look at the passenger airplane industry, there are only two choices: Airbus or Boeing.

They're the ones you see more usually in the US and Europe, I suppose, but there are others, such as Embraer, Bombardier, Sukhoi, Tupolev, and Antonov.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

Pf0tzenpfritz (1402005) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136848)

Yeah, I think we're all pretty bored buying the same airplanes over and over again. Do you, by any chance, know a reliable supplier of golden water taps, old chap? I am tired of those Philippe Starck ones.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (1)

roman_mir (125474) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137744)

Russia and Ukraine used to build airplanes for internal use only. I think some countries still buy their old planes, but the problem with Russia is that they are so corrupt, that any new business must immediately be profitable to the people in power through bribes, or it can go fuck itself basically.

Most known ex-USSR airplanes are IL [] and AN [] and TU [] and SU []

    For example Antonov is known for this []

but again, those 'companies' (they weren't really companies during USSR time) have been stagnating and mostly it's due to the bureaucratic nature of the industry in Russia, which cannot make a step on its own, it's all gov't dominated and monopolized and corrupt.

Re:DEC scared IBM in the 80's (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35138222)

A VAX was so much easier to develop on than the IBM systems we used to say 'When God writes software he uses a VAX'. Didn't originate with us but it fit. Using a VAX we needed fewer people to development a product, less system management was required, and when the power did something weird and cause all the systems to crash the battery-backed-up VAX systems were back up in minutes while the IBM machines took half an hour or more. Also if you were editing something when there was a crash you got back all your edits except maybe the last change.

The biggest little company in the world. (5, Interesting)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35135932)

Happy days,

We had the easynet, Dec's internal network, and we did Notes conferencing. I remember trying to explain to people about sitting stateside, dealing with my UK email and getting blank looks. Then we had a notes conference called 'the house' where each topic was someone's room. It felt pioneering back then in the 80's.

You could ask for help on the net, and get help. Then they grew too fast and brought in middle managers who blocked innovation.

We built some great things, global systems with cluster failover, self healing networks, global sync waves, bleeding edge leading edge database technology, all on VMS which was truly elegant.

That's when I really learnt how to build stuff.

Ken used to have a stuffed beaver in his office (now now) chewing a tree, the tree represented IBM.

I remember him acknowledging his biggest commercial mistake, which was when Bell Labs offered him Unix for free if he would only support it.

Goodbye Ken

stolen (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35135934)

Intel stole DEC's designs to make the pentium. It's a sad world.

Re:stolen (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35135954)

I thought that was the Itanium.

Re:stolen (3, Informative)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136062)

Nope, it was the Pentium. They eventually settled, in a deal that included Intel buying DEC's StrongARM division, which was eventually sold again to Marvell. Intel killed the Alpha by promising that Itanium would be faster and cheaper, so UNIX vendors could concentrate on the software and integration and share the CPU R&D cost by letting Intel design and produce the chips (PA-RISC died the same way).

Steve Jobs is Eldon Tyrell. Steve Wozniak is JF Sebastian.

I really hope that's not a reference to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I think a lot of people would take offence at Woz being described as intellectually subnormal (a 'chickenhead' in the book's parlance).

Re:stolen (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136094)

I really hope that's not a reference to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep. I think a lot of people would take offence at Woz being described as intellectually subnormal (a 'chickenhead' in the book's parlance).

JF had to be good for Tyrell to play chess with him. I reckon that while Tyrell had vision, up there in his pyramid, playing with toys like Rachel, he needed JF to build things, hence the chess games as a way of keeping in touch.

Re:stolen (2)

TheRaven64 (641858) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136232)

Ah, you're referring to Blade Runner. In Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, JF and Tyrell don't know each other. JF is a truck driver for a fake animal repair company, who accidentally kills a real cat because the owner calls him out thinking he's a real vet (the repair company vans look like vets' vans so the owner's neighbours won't know that the animal is fake) and he can't tell that it's real so he plugs it into the recharge socket and electrocutes it. Driving a truck is about the only job that someone with his low intellect can do, and he manages to mess that up in a way that's expensive to his employers. He can't emigrate to Mars, because chickenheads can't get a visa. He empathises with the androids because he's treated in a similar way to them by normal humans. They don't empathise with him, because they're not capable of doing so.

I do miss DEC (1)

ausrob (864993) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136006)

Compaq really killed DEC after the takeover. Such a pity because I used to refurb ex-government PCs, and I can tell you the old Digitals were WAY better than Compaqs, HPs or any other competition. Farewell to Mr Olsen, it is a shame his legacy doesn't live on in his memory.

Re:I do miss DEC (2)

PolygamousRanchKid (1290638) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136464)

Compaq really killed DEC after the takeover.

We'll see what's left over from Sun in a few years, after Larry Ellison is finished with it. After the Compaq takeover, I met some former DEC employees, who were then Compaq employees, in a hotel on a business trip. After a few drinks, they had some blunt advice: "If your company gets taken over by another company, quit as soon as you can, and get a job somewhere else. Takeovers always end in tears."

I am still scratching my head over how DEC ended that way: from being the heavyweight champion in the Unix server business, to being taken over by a PC company. Maybe I'll have to Google for a good book with insightful analysis. Or if any folks here can recommend anything, I'm all ears.

Re:I do miss DEC (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35137128)

I can vouch for Digital, too. In 2004, my then-employer decommissioned a bone-stock Digital 486 EISA machine with a Wavelan card in it running Netware 4.1 doing wireless routing. It had been in continuous operation since the early 90s with no issues at all.

Thanks for the career Ken (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136014)

Rest in peace Ken. Your DEC gear introduced me to computing. It changed my career path and it's enriched my life more than anything else I can think of. I wish I'd had the chance to say so in person. I still have a PDP-11 running RSX-11. I might run it for a little while this afternoon.


Re:Thanks for the career Ken (2)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136044)

Yes I have a DEC 3000 alpha server here. One of these days I want to find out if it really will make a good boat anchor. One thing I remember about the PDP 11/84s is that the electronics vastly outlasted the rubber padding inside the top cover of the CPU box. The rubber turned to dust and fell on to the backplane. This was okay until you re-seated a card, then the dust fell into the slots and you had to vacuum the whole thing out.

I have fond memories of lying prone under an 11/84 with a wire wrap tool in my hand trying to get the interrupt logic correct for a CSCI card. Of course I pulled out the leg extensions on the rack first. I'm not suicidal or anything.

Rest in peace man (1)

bazmail (764941) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136042)

Sad indeed. The first computer i ever used was a vax running vms (a model 220). I'll never forget the time i was taught how to knock other terminals offline using the phone program, or send ascii art via "facsimile". Best of times. Rest in Peace Ken.

Re:Rest in peace man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136078)

You mean you used a VT220 terminal to access VMS running on the VAX.

Re:Rest in peace man (1)

MichaelSmith (789609) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136120)

Yeah that had me puzzled for a bit. The IT department where I used to work would stick bar codes on to a VT240 because it had two parts and must be a computer, but they left a VT320 alone because that was just a "monitor". My hands ache at the thought of a VT100. Horrible keyboard.

Re:Rest in peace man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136416)

The VT320 also had a separate keyboard. The last VT terminal with a fixed keyboard was the VT52.

Re:Rest in peace man (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136996)

VT62 much? Just kidding, nobody did.

What he did we take for granted today (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136076)

Well -- or not really. We are still catching up in the services virtualization department. Cloud services are coming close (with about 100x..1000x as much useless bloat between the user and the iron, mind you).

Beginnings have Ends (3, Interesting)

Bucc5062 (856482) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136156)

When I went off to college I thought I'd grow up to be a physicist. I loved the science, but half way through the first semester I was discovering that physics was not working for me. Struggling with calculus I was directed to a room filled with what I thought were tv screens. They were monitors hooked to a PDP 11/45 which had just been installed at the school, replacing the IBM mainframe.

In that moment, sitting in front of that terminal and working my first program, I fell in love with computers. I loved how I could imagine something, then create it. Working on the PDP introduced me to the mini world, programming, and my career. While never knowing the man, the mind that conceived and created the DEC PDP family will be one I certainly honor and respect.

RIP Ken (1)

Peter Simpson (112887) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136172)

My first exposure to computer programming was on a PDP-8. Later, during summers at grad school, I was fortunate to get a job at the DEC plant in Westfield. It was a great place to work, and I was able to buy scrap parts from which I built up a video terminal which I used for several years.

Re:RIP Ken (1)

WindBourne (631190) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136450)

A well deserved rest. That man did so much for so long.

Loved that PDP-8. We ran mumps on it back in the 70's in a lab. Loved coding away on it.

Real engineering (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136174)

I mourn the passing of the man, as well as the engineering ethos he inspired, even in far flung Reading where I worked.

Buried face down nine edge first?? (2)

RobertLTux (260313) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136180)

Im thinking that he would be one of the last folks this would apply to.

Of course there is a problem of the shrinking number of folks that will get the reference also.

Re:Buried face down nine edge first?? (1)

Temkin (112574) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136254)

Except, he founded DEC. The Hollerith card is an IBM invention, dating back to the late 20's.

Re:Buried face down nine edge first?? (1)

olderphart (787517) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136322)

I happen to be gravitationally challenged, you insensitive clod! Neither "shrink" nor "edge" apply to me. But my very first IT job was running a card sorter....

Re:Buried face down nine edge first?? (1)

Peter Simpson (112887) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136392)

Yeah, Ken was more of an ASCII guy than EBCDIC. He's probably fanfolded.

Long live the PC! (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136198)

First PC was invented by IBM, it was their trademark for their own personal computer. Without IBM, we would not be here as we are now (the good side, bad side is that we are now here as we are because Microsoft faulty software).

First PC was released 1981 by IBM
First personal computer 1949 by Edmund Berkeley
First succeeded mass produced personal computer, Apple ][ at 1977

Thanks to Compaq (now HP) that they reverse engineered PC BIOS and PC-Clones came to market.

We do not have anymore PC's, even that most of them are someway compatible with the PC by CPU architecture, but we do not have anymore ISA slots or so on.

On personal computer markets, there have been always a fight between PC and Macintosh (aka Mac).
Even today, even that we dont have PC's, just new generations of personal computers what are related to original PC and are manufactured by new, and some old Clone PC manufacturers... We have still Apple building their own Macintosh line of personal computers. Even a Mac is no more a original, PC and Mac both have evolved as far from their originals that they are more same than what they are for the real PC and Macintosh.

Lets not forget that IBM PC was the first PC. PC was just a trademark by IBM for their own line of personal computer. And PC's are different than Macs. And at those times (80's) PC was known to be different. As all personal computers or software etc what were PC-compatible, worked with a PC.

Personal Computers ->
PC + PC Compability -> PC Clones ->
Macs -> Mac Clones (90's) -> Mac

Elegance (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136252)

The PDP-11 register architecture and instruction set had an elegance that you just don't see in tech any more.

It's a shame DEC didn't pioneer the PC: no-one would accuse Intel of elegance.

ken mourning dark days over US+world (-1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136374)

he's ok now? we are.......... hoping for life after all of the felonious corepirate nazis are properly restrained/contained & on display in glass cages, so we might take longer to forget, as we ?must?, yet again.

The VAX (1)

Alioth (221270) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136422)

Back in my school days, we used to talk about the mythical VAX in hushed tones, due to its awesomeness (at least we thought so). I never really used one in anger, they were already on their way out by the time I left school and went to university, but the uni still had a VAX cluster (on which we were forced to write COBOL, which soured the experience somewhat).

I actaully have a small VAX now, something I take to vintage computing shows and use as a fileserver for a network of Sinclair Spectrums...

yes, taken for granted (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136480)

Ken did not seek out fame for his work. He was focused on the company and its products. I believe he had the distinction at the time as the longest reigning founder/CEO of a Fortune 1000 company. Dan is so right about his contributions being taken for granted.


VAX 6000 Clusters (1)

draggin_fly (807754) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136502)

My grad school ran a cluster of VAX 6000s and I was lucky enough to get to work in the IT department. I wrote code for our gopher server. The cluster was so dependable that users never, in 6 years, realized that the parts of the cluster ever went down. Our system uptime was amazing - far better than any Windows cluster I've seen today despite the VMS/VAX cluster technology ending up in Windows NT.

Inspiration (4, Interesting)

eyenot (102141) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136558)

I'm super inspired by the math. He was 31 when he founded his company. All we ever seem to hear about are the impossible situations of being born into wealth, stalking through the ivy league, founding a government funded start-up by age 18, (having the 'rents boot the bill for) article of incorporation at age 20 and being (due to the misled, ignorant millions) in charge of some pointless "dot-com" by 23-25. Here we have an innovator who saw an inroad at a certain date -- he could have been in his 40's or 50's when it happened but he got "lucky" -- and followed it, carried through with his idea using determination and resolve, saw his vision fulfilled and had the fun he predicted he would in elbowing aside giants like IBM. It could happen to anybody! The economy doesn't need to be in the shitter. Anybody can go back to college, re-socialize, swing and actually hit the ball, sometimes out of the park. That's something that will never, ever, ever be heard of again in a country that allows itself to lapse into one (1) complete generation of Gimme-Jobber clones. We're mere fractions away from being in that exact, dire situation, and right now is probably our last chance at a strong economy with our independence intact. We have to do like Ken Olson, stop trying to "look for a job", stop trying to compete-by-rote (dislodge the 24/7 vee-dee-yo holo-game controller implant) and relearn to socialize and do sound business with integrity and grit. Our country is turning into a bunch of antisocial, passive-aggressive fucktards with chips on their shoulders and not even the brains to know what the fuck they're such douchebags for in the first place, with tarnished, discount-antique-store, silver spoons up their asses. A bunch of whiney fucking nobodies looking up to Hollywoodization as the key to all knowledge, more film-reel upstairs than just plain real.

the founder of Route 128 (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136724)

Back in the heyday of the "Massachusetts Miracle" ('80s), road signs bragged: "Route 128, America's Technology Highway". I think it started with Lincoln Labs, and MIT was the big feeder school (Harvard really came into play much later, when Zuckerman came along), but Olsen gave it the big push. Wave after wave of minicomputer and workstation startups sprung up around Route 128 and I-495 (beltways around Boston), often founded or staffed by ex-Digital engineers, starting with Data General. Many achieved substantial success, with annual revenue running into hundreds of millions or more. Lots of them adopted DEC's blueprint for success: a soup-to-nuts system with a proprietary stack of hardware and system software, maintaining backward compatibility with application software in successive generations, all the better to ensure customer lock-in. All developed in one location, or a nearby set of locations, often converted mill buildings. The staff would be mostly guys in their twenties and thirties who worked 60-100 hour weeks trying to get a big score from their stock options, often in competition with a similar venture-funded outfit down the street staffed by friends and former coworkers. The founder would be a legendary engineer's engineer who also had the vision, stamina, and leadership ability to call both the business and technical shots.

At the end of the '80s, the recession clobbered Massachusetts even worse than the rest of the country. Many tech companies went out of business, and savvy customers learned to appreciate vendors that adapted a more open architecture, pioneered by Sun Microsystems in Silicon Valley. The "Technology Highway" signs quietly came down. DEC in particular was squeezed by Sun's move into server computing (the client/server paradigm was just taking hold at that time) and by increasingly powerful personal computers running Novell's Netware, IBM's OS/2, or (eventually) Microsoft's Windows NT. The PC revolution had caught Olsen as flat-footed as IBM had once been by DEC. By this time, DEC's autocratic culture had become a liability: as Lotus' non-engineer CEO Jim Manzi once remarked, DEC had a "Ken says" culture. "Unless 'Ken says' something, it doesn't get done", said Manzi. The new generation of competitors was more nimble.

And remember, children: If it's not 36 bits... (4, Funny)

Suzuran (163234) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136770)'re not playing with a full DEC!
PDP-10 into eternity!
@info ver
Bamboo Forest of the Lost, Eientei TOPS-20 Monitor 7.1(21733)
PANDA TOPS-20 Command processor 7.1(4453)-4
Tue 8-Feb-2011 07:43:09  Up 1958:51:50!
0+9 Jobs   Load av   0.03   0.01   0.01

No operator in attendance

A real gentleman (2)

ArmchairAstronomer (724678) | more than 3 years ago | (#35136812)

I was fortunate enough to meet the man a few times during my short stay at DEC in the 80's. He was very gracious, intelligent and committed to the company. Ken was on the Ford Motor Company Board of Directors so he came to Detroit fairly often. I remember at one point he gave Henry Ford II a Rainbow PC and one of the guys I worked with had to go install it at the Duce's mansion. Henry gave Ken an Escort station-wagon which he drove for several years. Rest in Peace Ken.

It's true. (1)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35136972)

'Ken Olsen is in the elite club of tech founders w/Gates & Jobs, and set the stage for them. What he did we take for granted today.'"

It's true. even open source started on or because of gear DEC gear. BSD in '74 on a PDP, GNU in the 80s because of a PDP model being discontinued, TeX was born on a PDP, X Windows has its roots in project Athena (with which DEC was involved in) and made its first appearance on the MicroVAX, which in turn also introduced Kerberos, and was a huge influence on thin computing, LDAP and even instant messaging.

UNIX was originally developed on/for a DEC PDP-7. VAX gave birth to VMS (VMS in turn has the basis for Windows NT's design). The PDP-11's design is cited as being what influenced Motorolla's 68k, C was written for the sake of taking advantage of the PDP-11's functionality, digital music was born on the PDP-1, The Alpha EV5 was the first microprocessor to employ a large L2 cache, the EV7 was the first to have an on-chip menory controller, .

The magnitude of DEC contributions is indeed taken for granted. Olsen will be missed.

Great Company In Its Heyday (1)

mangusman (778529) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137374)

As a former employee of DEC ('79-'95), I can tell you it was a great company to work for. DEC's overall management philosophy was and is still the standard I measure other managers to, and sadly, most can't even compare. Did Ken Olsen make mistakes? Sure he did. He didn't put a lot value in marketing his products, and it cost him dearly. And DEC *was* building PCs before they were in vogue. But again, they weren't marketed (and really weren't aimed at home users), but the Robin, DECmate, Pro350 were all PCs built before their time. RIP Ken.

R.I.P. Ken Olsen (5, Interesting)

new death barbie (240326) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137394)

I worked at DEC for over a decade, in the 70's and early 80's and was there when he was forced out. The company was very much built around his charisma -- he was a big man, unassuming, but very charismatic -- and even in remote field offices, every new employee would soon know who the president of the company was, and hear a few stories about how he embarrassed one of the local sales reps by speaking too bluntly to a customer. Unless you were in sales, these were considered proof the President was a good guy, one of "us".

Once I had the good fortune to be able to visit the Mill, in Maynard, Mass, with a few others on training. On Friday when the class let out early, we wandered the complex (it was a campus of interconnected buildings), visiting the clock tower, and asking people where Ken Olsen's offices were.

Well, we found the executive offices, and tentatively asked one of the secretaries, which was Ken's. She pointed it out, and then, to our horror, picked up the phone and asked if he would come out and meet us. Son of a bitch, he did. He took the time to come out and shake our hands and speak to us lowly field employees, and he seemed as interested in meeting us as we were to meet the man himself.

When he left, it wasn't the same company. DEC had some serious marketing challenges at the time, granted, but I don't think many appreciate the technology it had. VMS in the 80s was a better operating system than any flavor of Unix, today. You could write programs with modules in C, Fortran, Cobol, Basic, or just about any other language, mix and match, and the architecture supported that. VMSclusters in the 80's were far easier to configure and run, and more functional than any Unix cluster I've seen today. The Alpha architecture had legs for twenty years, maybe more.

I was sorry to hear about your passing Ken, and I know heaven has a place for you.

Re:R.I.P. Ken Olsen (0)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35137674)

>>> VMS in the 80s was a better operating system than any flavor of Unix, today.
>>> You could write programs with modules in C, Fortran, Cobol, Basic, or just about any other language, mix and match, and the architecture supported that.

I hope that someday, linking loaders and portable compilers are invented for Unix, and even Windows :-)

My FIRST hands on computer (1)

Gim Tom (716904) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137474)

Back in the late 1960's as an undergraduate Rambling Wreck I took a class that gave me hands on access to a PDP8i. It was my first exposure to assembly programming (I still have the books) and after that I was hooked. I am retired now, after a pretty good 40 year run. But I am still learning new languages and platforms, just because I am STILL hooked. Thanks Mr. Olsen for an interesting life. It has been fun.

PDP/Vaxen (1)

fwingo (1011995) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137588)

I cut my teeth on PDP 11-70s and a Vax 11/780 running BSD back in '83. The Vax had a sky floating point board and custom wire wrapped 32 bit frame buffer called the BB (Big Buffer). Dec hardware running BSD was a great development environment.

ken (2)

dmallery (150862) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137710)

i spent 13 years writing about dec in decpro and rstspro magazines.

i often was critical. ken never failed to greet me and was ever gracious.

i think of him rolling out his g4 at bedford.

fare foward, ken

dave mallery

Thank You (2)

kernelcache (1810198) | more than 3 years ago | (#35137746)

Thank you for giving us a shoulder to stand on.

I mourn the alpha chip (1)

plopez (54068) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138088)

DEC had been working on the Alpha for a number years, from all reports a "world beater" in high performance chip. DEC was sold to Compaq which was bought by HP. HP had a close relationship with Intel, which was working their own high end chip the Itanium. By all reports the Alpha was much better than the Itanium. HP transferred the Alpha technology to Intel in exchange for some deals on chips and marketing. That's the last anyone heard of the Alpha.

Meanwhile the Itanium, dubbed the iTanic, sank. Here an article from VC on the latest developments on the iTanic front: []


Olsen's own staff turned on him, and killed DEC. (4, Insightful)

Anonymous Coward | more than 3 years ago | (#35138208)

Ken Olsen was an engineer's engineer, and he built a company that was based on innovative engineering and run by engineers.

DEC had 64-bit computing, virtual memory and virtual address extension, and dozens of other things we take for granted today literally twenty years before the competition! I worked routinely on inexpensive 64-bit machines in the 1980s, machines that simultaneously ran TCP/IP, SPX/IPX, LAT, and DECnet on the same wires, supporting 400 end users and huge databases with less processing power than you find on an nVidia card nowadays.

Sadly, the marketing and professional management people at DEC turned on Olsen, and engineered a financial crisis that allowed his ouster. Admittedly, those people were treated badly by Olsen, who viewed salesmen as a necessary evil and never really hid his opinion that business people were less valuable that the engineers and programmers. However, the salesforce rebellion was self-defeating, because from there the company entered a death spiral, as the bean counters' failure to maintain Olsen's unique corporate culture drove the top brains away to Microsoft (see wikipedia's entry on Cutler), Intel, Sun and Oracle.

After the disastrous Microsoft settlement, and the equally disastrous tech giveaway to Intel, DEC lost software and hardware primacy, and without Olsen at the helm the ship ran aground. A sad end to a mighty force for innovation; parted out to the highest bidder.

Goodbye, Ken. You were a good man, and it was an honor to have known you; I'll never forget you.

My First Computer Language, DEC-FORTRAN VI (1)

LifesABeach (234436) | more than 3 years ago | (#35138310)

DEC 10, VAX, PDP, DEC-FORTRAN, DEC-COBOL, "Batch Processing", "Menu Driven Systems", "Modular Programming" once graced my resume. And all because of DEC.
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