Lynne speaks - "The Symmetric 375 was a very
unique computer. Based on the NS32000 microprocessor,
it was a portable no wait state computer with virtual memory, hardware floating point, large processor
main memory, and ethernet. Unlike PCs, it supported 4 users easily with a host of compilers,
debuggers, tools and utilities, and applications. It ran a custom version of
Berkeley Unix (4.1BSD, 4.2BSD, 4.3BSD) called Symmetrix. Later versions offered a configurable kernel
software package for device drivers and SCSI support. Much of this work influenced work later done
in 386BSD. I wrote the "The Symmetric 375 and Symmetrix Owner's Manual" for it.
One of the most interesting aspects of this manual was that it did not follow the typical
"Unix Man command" style. Instead of offering a printed command manual with some hardware pages as was the
common approach, the 375 came with an online man function (early UNIX boxes often didn't do this to preserve disk space).
Since specific commands were already referenceable, I wrote the manual entirely from someone trying
to get some useful work out of this computer, from plugging it in to writing and compiling programs.
Fortunately, I'd already worked with BSD at Berkeley in programming classes, where we were expected to
know how to write, compile, and debug our assignments. However, students weren't allowed to administrate
these expensive timesharing systems at Berkeley, so this manual was also an exploration of Unix
sysadmin functions - and here BSD was found sorely lacking.
During the course of writing this manual, I would
frequently complain about arcane and silly acronyms, overly-complicated commands, and inefficient
processes that would be best automated. Since Symmetric was a small company, it wasn't hard to
get people to "make BSD Unix more friendly", and commands were introduced ranging from "nu" to add
new users with one simple command (instead of the older manual modification of many different files)
to formatting a floppy with fdformat (instead of the more arcane "format" command). Everything
was simplified, redone, and pared down to make administration simpler - a plus for anyone at
Symmetric who got "phone support" duty, since we eliminated the most common support calls and
reduced our support headaches by about 60%.
connectivity was a novel experience, a tutorial on Internet configuration and use was written,
discussing TCP/IP, DNS, IP addresses, and all the host files we still have to manually configure today.
Everything from backups (both simplified and the Tower-of-Hanoi model), serial and parallel
communications, resource and account control, error mapping and handling (both hard and soft - does
anyone remember bad144?), modem support, ftp and UUCP were included.
Finally, an extensive writeup of the hardware, including a comprehensive and unique ROM monitor
for initial program loading of the operating system, was done. Through use of the ROM monitor
alone, one could diagnose hardware and kernel issues - something of value to real kernel
programmers. I doubt many programmers could ever understand how to use such a feature today. This
manual has become somewhat legendary, given how concise it was while still covering all the elements
required to administrate a Unix system.
Unlike the later fad in "Dummy" books, I presumed the
customer was an intelligent person who was not interested in becoming a system administrator or
a kernel hacker, but instead was a serious scientist or engineer using a computer to get some work
done. Interestingly enough, it still is a good quick reference guide for many key items which
underlie all Unix systems today, and many of the "quicker" commands and hardware
work such as "disklabel" went right back into Berkeley Unix releases for others to use - not
surprising, since the manual got review and feedback as it was written by people at Berkeley
and it got passed around a great deal.
However, given that many of the deeper architectural innovations in Symmetrix and 386BSD
have never been incorporated into other Unix systems precisely because they make Unix "friendly",
you'd have to either 1) find a 375 to enjoy its many innovations, or 2) find a copy of 386BSD Release
1.0 or later. Since most of the 375s were sold to aerospace and government, I doubt you'll find it easy
to get a hold of one - we've shown a few still nicely running dating from the mid-1980's at
the Vintage Computer Faire, including
the wire-wrap prototype, and they've lasted far longer than any PCs we've used since - but if
any are still running in some lonely government office somewhere, they probably are not accessible
to the general public.
In the case of 386BSD, the uncertain degradation of CDROM media
at the time makes it unlikely
that copies from the Dr. Dobbs Journal CDROM are as viable as they once were to use. Finally,
later versions of 386BSD stayed in the lab and were not put into general release because
they were considered "too far ahead" of the time. The real reason was much simpler - removing a
problem through innovation and architecture also removes the raison d'etre for the "expert". Alas,
even changing a simple command gores someone's ox.
William Jolitz and two others founded Symmetric Computer Systems, Inc,
a computer systems manufacturer and vendor. Symmetric
designed, programmed, and build many products,
the most famous of which was the Symmetric 375.
The Vintage Computer Faire was held last weekend at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View last weekend. Sellam Ismail, VCF Coordinator and vintage computer collector, was kind enough to send me a couple of passes. Unlike the cozy NASA-Ames location of several years ago, the Vintage Computer Faire, typically home of games, small computers like t ...
Matt Marshall mentioned an old defunct company that I was rather fond of - Miniscribe. Now, Miniscribe in the 1980's went from nothing to making and selling quite reliable 85 MByte drives (full size) at what was then a really great price (around $850 in quantity). It was the
Went to the 2004 First Robotics Regional Competition in Silicon Valley, held at San Jose State University. And it was awesome to see all these kids running their "bots" through the paces. Got some great footage, even though Los Gatos High School's robot broke midway through competition.
Seeing the excitement, the fun, and the high-tech hijinks reminded me of the days when we were putting together workstati ...
A teeny tiny acquisition announcement brought back a lot of memories today.
Remember Santa Cruz Operation - no, not the SCO you read about fighting IBM and Novell, but the "old SCO"? Bob Greenberg and friends did a very brain-damaged version of Unix for the PC (originally derived from Version 7 and System 3) way back in the dark ages. Bob had done a Version 6 Unix derivative ...
Alright! Yes, sometimes I do read slashdot when it's amusing, and the discussion of how you can create your own custom panic screen (or BSOD window) for OS/X via an API is amusing (my son Ben points this stuff out for me - he feels it's one of his sacred tasks). Joke panic screens have been around a long time, but the battle over "how much information to give people" has led to many not-so-amusing battles, especially when we were creating Lynne's Take on Tech - Sure We're Open Source - Not
Alas, apparently that silly press release last week has totally confused the writing fraternity into thinking the 1990's were actually the 1980's (see Fun Friday - Homer's Illiad to be "Improved" for Silicon Valley). Aside from the fact that Clinton and Reagan were both absolutely adored by the American people, I don't think the 1980's were really enough like the 1990's to easily confuse the two decades, do you?
OK, most people think that startups are done by 20-something guys who sleep on the floor, talk really fast and don't use deoderent. Well, that was kind of true 20 years ago, and that is the type of guy who some VCs like to fund thinking "Wow, they'll work day and night and all I have to do is pay their parking tickets". But what about those "moms" who are also "entrepreneurs"? Well, according to Marianne Costantinou of the San Francisco Chronicle, a women who has kids and wants to run a busin ...
Dennis Rockstroh of ActionLine in the Merc attempted to handle the frustration of a Sony Vaio user recently. Turns out the poor man continually had the power just blit out on him while working on his laptop. Back and forth to the factory it went, never seeming to get any better. Dennis helped the gentleman get a replacement laptop from the factory, but no one seemed to understand why such a problem was occurring and why it required a complete replacement to rectify. Sony didn't wish to ...
The desperation for eyeballs on news websites has led to a lot of "People" styled columns, especially in the NY Times. But I just couldn't resist commenting on the "Who's Smarter: Bill Gates or Mark Zuckerberg?" column, if only because I know something of the players and their backers.
I know journalists like to fancy that there's something special about succeeding in this field - after al ...
Sun Microsystems is gone. It is no more. It has met its maker. It is pushing up the daisies.
Given Sun's long sad decline and incredible mismanagement, many are probably happy to dismiss it as a has-been that never actually did anything - grave dancing is a peculiar Silicon Valley tradition. But Sun's demise does matter. Sun was the annoying colleague that was occasionally brilliant and creative but also had some very irreligious and disreputable habits that were unforgivable but too o ...
Three very interesting little open source stories passed my desk recently that I found shone facets on open source issues.
Last week, the Industrial Commercial Bank of China has signed a deal with Unix-clone Turbolinux to run open-source software in all of the bank's operations. "Linux deployment is growing in China, with software makers targeting segments such as banking, insurance and wireless applications. Intel last year began a program to boost sales in China of desktop computers ...
Well, given the egos in Silicon Valley, it comes as no surprise that a press release like this would appear. It was so inaccurate that the Wall Street Journal got fooled and then had to reverse themselves and say Bill Joy is not a "venture partner" after all. Steve Lohr of the NY Times commen ...
Judy Estrin and I have both been around in Silicon Valley. I was at Symmetric Computer Systems soldering the first five motherboards for the 375 while she was at Zilog with Bill Carrico (who was the product manager for the Z80). Paul Baran, a great influence on my work in layer-4 switching using dataflow techniques (InterProphet patents) was a student of her father's at UCLA (where my son is off to in a couple weeks, but in physics, not computing).