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October 28, 2008updated 19 Aug 2016 10:07am

Blast from the past: project ‘Asparagus’, anyone?

Your starter for ten: which server maker once had a joint venture with Japan’s Nippon Telegraph & Telephone (NTT) to build a data and speech communications hub, with the rather sexy code-name ‘Asparagus’?Some clues: The year was 1987. The server

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Your starter for ten: which server maker once had a joint venture with Japan’s Nippon Telegraph & Telephone (NTT) to build a data and speech communications hub, with the rather sexy code-name ‘Asparagus’?

Some clues: The year was 1987. The server maker in question was working with NTT on a communications hub built around its Eclipse MV minicomputer. Got it now?

Ok some more clues. The server firm was ultimately sold to EMC. CEO at the time was Ron Skates. Most famous engineer was Tom West, who was the subject of Tracy Kidder’s bestseller The Soul of a New Machine…[click continue reading for more on the mystery server maker and project Asparagus!]…

Got it? Yep, it was Data General (DG).

This was, of course, long before Data General was acquired by EMC. Back in the day you may recall, Data General made its money from minicomputers, not the CLARiiON storage arrays that led EMC to buy the firm.

So why was the joint venture with NTT code-named ‘Asparagus’? Apparently the reason was that the vegetable takes two years after planting to produce edible shoots, but once established, it produces indefinitely. I don’t know whether it was DG or NTT that came up with the name, but if you do I’d love to hear from you.

Anyway as it turns out, the two-year wait for ‘edible shoots’ wasn’t so accurate after all. The two-year milestone came and went without any sign of a hub, and by the time four years were up, DG canned the project altogether. This was in 1991.

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DG reportedly decided that it did not want to make engineering changes that were requested by the Japanese phone company. It said it planned to use some of the base technology in future ISDN systems, but shortly after it disengaged from most of its telecommunications activities to focus on servers, specifically the AViiON 88000 RISC Unix machines.

Trivial fact: Data General called its servers AViiON and its storage arrays CLARiiON. From time to time it used the tagline, “The ii’s have it.”

Trivial fact 2: in 1996, before DG was sold to EMC, Tom West started a skunkworks project called THiiNLINE, which later became a division in its own right. He was working on thin servers and thin clients, and did manage to get its SiteStak thin web server to market before the firm was bought and the development discontinued.

Fabulously, there’s still a website for the THiiNLINE division live here.

On the About Us page you can see Tom West in the photo montage: he is the one at the wheel of an old Spanish frigate sailing up the Hudson (I only know this because I was on-board: he granted an interview with Unigram X, which I wrote for back then).

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