Thursday, August 11, 2016

You Can't Go Home Again

Just last month, Google won its trial brought by Oracle over the Java APIs it's owned since it's acquisition of Sun Microsystems in 2010. This week Hewlett-Packard Enterprises announced it's acquiring SGI (formerly Silicon Graphics).

The closely occurring events caused me to reflect on the computing technology landscape I've trod through over the last 30 years.

Like most physics majors, I started out squarely in hardware-land (Motorola 68000-land, actually).

I didn't start any serious developing  until I was teaching comp/sci in the mid 80s.  Up until that time I had mostly worked with large systems in academic environments (Xerox and IBM).  But as a teacher, I had lots of presentation-oriented requirements for what I wanted to do.  That led me to Commodore's Amiga systems which were 68020-based, had a custom graphics chip-set, full multitasking, and stereo sound. In 1985, there wasn't a lot out there  to compete with that at reasonable cost.

So I became a developer with C and Forth on AmigaDOS.  Had a lot of fun for a few years before the problems with the company, not the platform, became impossible to overcome.  We developers used to call the Amiga "the Computer Commodore couldn't kill". Technically, they actually didn't kill it, though they lagged development and were eventually overtaken by PCs in performance.

By the early 90s it became obvious that Commodore was dying a slow and painful death. Changed horses in the middle of the stream. After surveying, the small platform landscape, I decided to jump ship for Steve Jobs' NeXT.  Based on Mach UNIX, OpenStep was a powerful operating system, and the platform was specifically aimed at being an academic workstation.

But development was very frustrating as promised compression hardware failed to show up, and the company made frequent hardware changes without notifying developers.  And, of course, eventually, the software platform was absorbed into Apple as was Jobs.

By this time, I was doing a lot of scientific development and landed in a space dominated by Sun, SGI, and Cray. Lots of intermixing going on there.

  • SGI ate Cray and SGI sold off it's  superservers to Sun. 
  • SGI spun off the Cray Research Business division to Tera.
  • SGI went bankrupt.  
  • Sun was eaten by Oracle.
  • SGI returned as a much smaller player
  • Cray returned as a much smaller player
  • IBM started to dominate the HPC and supercomputing space.
  • SGI got eaten by Hewlett-Packard Enterprises.

Had fun, but none of those environments are going to be significant in scientific computing in the future (for now).

So I can't go home again.  The whole neighborhood has burned down.

Most of my computing today is centered around machine learning applications.

The dominant platforms are being provided by IBM and HPE.

This old dog  may once again have to learn some new tricks.  Or maybe just retire...

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