Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Didn't we used to call this time-sharing?

When I first began my post-B school career, nearly 30 years ago, I worked for a company that specialized in econometric and financial forecasting models, which we created using an arcane proprietary modeling language, XSIM, that ran on a mainframe somewhere "out there." (Out there was in Waltham, Massachusetts. We also sold time-sharing to companies who wanted to roll their own models, write their own reports, and access their own data. Mostly, given the intricacies of XSIM, they wanted us to do it for them.)

Us consultants wrote our models on "dumb terminals, DecWriters, which didn't have screens but were, instead, paper based - sort of like typewriters, only attached to the mainframe. We worked in a bullpen, the "terminal room", where there weren't enough dumb terminals to go around. If you had work to do, you haunted the edges of the terminal room, watching for your moment. When someone left their terminal unattended for more than the time it took to go to the bathroom or get a cup of coffee, you could "sleep" it - suspending someone else's session - and go about your business.

Most of the DecWriters were 300 baud, but a couple speed-demons revved up to 1200. Zoom!

The only advantage of the paper terminals was that you could thumb through the piles of waste paper that people left there while you were waiting for a model to run. (That's where I came across the printout that contained everyone's salary. Of course I looked - but I did shove it under the door of the finance guy who'd left it there.)

Eventually, we got a handful of dumb, screen-based terminals, which we all jockeyed for.

So much cooler and faster!

When you logged into the mainframe, you got a slice of the pie worth 1024 bytes (can that be?). Some things required a bigger bite, so once you logged in, you could re-IPL at 2048. Sometimes, usage was so heavy that "the phantom" would warn internal users to log off or get knocked off. We'd then sneak back in at 512, then re-IPL ourselves up to 1024 or 2048.

Eventually, we all got VT 131 terminals in our offices, which really changed the culture of the company. When we all worked in the terminal room,  you could just yell out if you had a question about some XSIM command or function, and usually there was someone there who could answer it. (The alternative was pawing through the XSIM documentation, two large volumes covered in tan leatherette, each the size and heft of a Gutenberg Bible.)

Once we were in our individual offices, I can't exactly say that anomie set in - this was a very social workplace. Still, things changed.

But things were changing on the outside world, too.

The first PC came through our doors - no hard drive, it ran off floppies - and it was give an office to itself. We took turns oohing and aahing and doing "stuff" on it. Most of the stuff we did was connect to the mainframe and use the PC as a dumb terminal, but bit by bit the action went to the PC - and we started doing our work in Multiplan and WordPerfect.

One of my favorite moments of this era was our company's president being quoted in some mag saying that he couldn't understand why anyone would want a computer in their home. What a futurist!

Anyway, all this came to mind when I saw an article in The Wall Street Journal the other day on virtual desktops, which are apparently making their long forecast appearance on the scene. Companies are going virtual to wring costs out of their operations.

Of course, we've heard this in the past.

The so-called thin-client revolution has been touted before, but has so far failed to arrive. At last count about 633 million desktop PCs were humming in offices around the globe, according to technology watchers at Gartner.

Gartner and other analysts say improved virtualization software for the desktop, the rising cost of maintaining PCs and demands for more security and regulatory accountability are all making conditions ripe for virtual PCs.

Gartner says the number of virtual desktops doubled in the last year to about 600,000. It predicts that over the next five years, 15% of current PCs will be replaced by virtual desktops.

I wonder if Gartner ever looks back at their predictions to see how they pan out?

Anyway, they're calling the virtual desktop the "hottest trend out there."

Hot, hot, hot!

Past is prologue. What's old is new. Coming full circle.

Personally, I like keeping a bit of power local for those few, those precious few, moments when I'm out of range of the Internet. Of course, these days, that pretty much rules out anyplace other than Tierra Del Fuego. Still....

A tip of the hat to The Journal for this little stroll down 1024 byte (or is it bit?) memory lane.

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