'minicomputers' Episodes

The Data General Nova

     3/5/2020

Today we’re going to talk through the history of the Data General Nova. Digital Equipment was founded in 1957 and released a game changing computer, the PDP-8, in 1965. We covered Digital in a previous episode, but to understand the Data General Nova, you kinda’ need to understand the PDP. It was a fully transistorized computer and it was revolutionary in the sense that it brought interactive computing to the masses. Based in part on research from work done for MIT in the TX-0 era, the PDP made computing more accessible to companies that couldn’t spend millions on computers and it was easier to program - and the PDP-1 could be obtained for less than a hundred thousand dollars. You could use a screen, type commands on a keyboard for the first time and it would actually output to screen rather than reading teletypes or punch cards. That interactivity unlocked so much.

The PDP began the minicomputer revolution. The first real computer game Spacewar! Was played on it and the adoption increased. The computers got faster. They could do as much as large mainframes. The thousands of transistors were faster and less error-prone than the old tubes. In fact, those transistors signaled that the third generation of computers was upon us. And people who liked the PDP were life-long converts. Fanatical even. The PDP evolved until 1965 when the PDP-8 was released. This is where Edson de Castro comes in, acting as the project manager for the PDP-8 development at Digital. 3 years later, he, Henry Burkhardt, and Richard Sogge of Digital would be joined by Herbert Richman a sales person from Fairchild Semiconductor.

They were proud of the PDP-8. It was a beautiful machine. But they wanted to go even further. And they didn’t feel like they could do so at Digital. They would build a less expensive minicomputer that opened up even more markets. They saw new circuit board manufacturing techniques, new automation techniques, new reasons to abandon the 12-bit CPU techniques. Edson had wanted to build a PDP with all of this and the ability to use 8 bit, 16 bit, or 32 bit architectures, but it got shut down at Digital. So they got two rounds of venture capital at $400,000 each and struck out on their own. They wanted the computer to fit into a 19-inch rack mount. That choice would basically make the 19 inch rack the standard from then on.

They wanted the machines to be 16-bit, moving past the 8 or 12 bit computers common in mini-computing at the time. They used an accumulator-based architecture, which is to say that there was a CPU that had a register that stored the results of various bits of code. This way you weren’t writing the results of all the maths into memory and then sending it right back to the CPU. Suddenly, you could do infinitely more math! Having someone from Fairchild really unlocked a lot of knowledge about what was happening in the integrated circuit market. They were able to get the price down into the thousands, not tens of thousands.

You could actually buy a computer for less than 4 thousand dollars.

The Nova would ship in 1969 and be an instant success with a lot of organizations. Especially smaller science labs like one at the University of Texas that was their first real paying cusotmer. Within 6 months they sold 100 units and within the first few years, they were over $100 million in sales. They were seeking into Digital’s profits. No one would have invested in Digital had they tried to compete head-on with IBM. Digital had become the leader in the minicomputer market, effectively owning the category. But Nova posed a threat. Until they decided to get into a horse race with Digital and release the SuperNOVA to compete with the PDP-11. They used space age designs. They were great computers. But Digital was moving faster. And Data General started to have production and supply chain problems, which led to law suits and angry customers. Never good.

By 1977 Digital came out with the VAX line, setting the standard to 32-bit. Data General was late to that party and honestly, after being a market leader in low-cost computing they started to slip. By the end of the 70s microchips and personal computers would basically kill minicomputers and while transitioning from minicomputers to servers, Data General never made quite the same inroads that Digital Equipment did. Data General would end up with their own DOS, like everyone their own UNIX System V variant, one of the first portable computers, but by the mid-80s, IBM showed up on the market and Data General would make databases and a number of other areas to justify what was becoming a server market.

In fact, the eventual home for Data General would be to get acquired by EMC and become CLaRiiON under the EMC imprint. It was an amazing rise. Hardware that often looked like it came straight out of Buck Rogers. Beautiful engineering. But you just can’t compete on price and stay in business forever. Especially when you’re competing with your former bosses who have much much deeper pockets.

EMC benefited from a lot of these types of acquisitions over the years, to become a colossus by the end of the 2010s. We can thank Data General and specifically the space age nova, for helping set many standards we use today. We can thank them for helping democratize computing in general. And if you’re a heavy user of EMC appliances, you can probably thank them for plenty of underlying bits of what you do even through to today. But the minicomputer market required companies to make their own chips in that era and that was destroyed by the dominance of Intel in the microchip industry. It’s too bad.

So many good ideas. But the costs to keep up turned out to be too much for them, as with many other vendors. One way to think about this story. You can pick up on new manufacturing and design techniques and compete with some pretty large players, especially on price. But when the realities of scaling an operation come you can’t stumble or customer confidence will erode and there’s a chance you won’t get to compete for deals again in the future. But try telling that to your growing sales team.

I hear people say you have to outgrow the growth rate of your category. You don’t. But you do have to do what you say you will and deliver. And when changes in the industry come, you can’t be all over the place. A cohesive strategy will help you whether the storm. So thank you for tuning into this episode of the History of Computing Podcast. We are so lucky you chose to join us and we hope to see you next time! Have a great day!


(OldComputerPods) ©Sean Haas, 2020