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September 21, 2007updated 19 Aug 2016 10:08am

FT gets its gender confused, but its books right: why Data General was inspirational

I read with interest a really nice article by Alan Cane for the Financial Times’ Digital Business special report, headlined, ‘The six books that shaped my view of technology.’ I was particularly drawn to the fact that Cane, quite rightly, includes

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I read with interest a really nice article by Alan Cane for the Financial Times’ Digital Business special report, headlined, ‘The six books that shaped my view of technology.’ I was particularly drawn to the fact that Cane, quite rightly, includes Tracy Kidder’s Pulitzer-winning ‘The Soul of a New Machine’.

It’s one of the first technology business books I read that actually made the big old technology firms, in this case Data General, seem exciting places to work. As Cane says, “With The Soul of a New Machine, Tracy Kidder introduced me in 1981 to the world of minicomputers. Kidder gave a racy account of how Data General, then a leading minicomputer manufacturer, fought against the odds to bring out its first 32-bit supermini in competition with all-powerful Digital Equipment Corporation.”

He adds, “In doing so, she pioneered the literary device of describing individuals carrying out mundane build-and-test procedures as if they were pulp fiction characters: ‘Seen at the wheel of his sporty red Saab, driving down 495, West [the head of the Data General project group] made a picture of impatience. His jaw was set, he had a forward lean. Sometimes he briefly wore a mysterious smile. He was a man on a mission.’”

I don’t profess to be an expert – by the time I read this book in the early nineties it had already become a classic while I was still at school. But I do know that Cane has his genders muddled: Kidder is a man, though with a first name like that it’s an easy mistake to make. I like the passage Cane picked out, though, because I met Tom West in the early nineties at Data General’s headquarters, and it describes him well…

west_and_kidder.jpg

Source: The Computer Museum. I think West is on the left, Kidder on the right (and not the other way around as suggested by the Museum). I met West many years later, but he still had the beard.

I’d been invited to go and meet West and his team after some pretty constant harassment on the phone while I was news editor of a little weekly newsletter called UnigramX. Back then, before the dawn of the Internet as a publishing medium, we printed and posted the newsletter every week to those with an eye on Unix – vendors as much as end users.

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I’d called West and his team so many times about a new skunkworks project he was by this time working on — called ThiinLine — that they eventually let me fly out and see what he was doing down in the labs.

By this time West was already considered by many to be nothing short of engineering gold-dust. As well the big part he played in the development of the minicomputer that Kidder’s book describes so well, the Eclipse, he and his team went on to build DG’s Aviion non uniform memory architecture (NUMA) servers that took Microsoft’s fledgling Windows Server operating system to new levels of scalability.

Later he turned his attention to storage, and helped design DG’s Clariion mid-range storage arrays. They gave EMC such a bloody nose in the high end of the mid-market that EMC eventually bought DG in 1999 — lock, stock and server -for $1.1bn in stock. EMC still makes the Clariion based largely on West and his team’s designs, and it’s still a multi-million dollar revenue stream. EMC wanted the Clariion so badly it bought the whole of DG, even though it new from the outset it would shut down DG’s server business just as soon as it could.

Anyway, when I got to DG’s HQ in the basement of the Data General headquarters building in Westborough, Massachusetts, I was greeted by a bunch of engineers and software developers that West had assembled into the ThiinLine group. As each was introduced to me, West was hanging around right at the back of the group, with a demeanour somewhere between a nervous child and mental hospital patient who’s only just had their straight-jacket removed. “That’s Tom West at the back, the one who looks like he might kill someone,” one of his team, a nice chap (I think called Felix Gallo) told me.

At the time, the ThiinLine division didn’t have an awful lot to show me. They had a working web server appliance – some of these did end up getting sold, though never in huge volumes. But West told me what he really wanted to create was a thin server used for serving applications to thin clients on a network. Like the web server appliance, it had to be incredibly easy to set up, have minimal ongoing management requirements and if possible have a very small form factor.

He was complaining though that the thin client market was being too slow to produce a low-cost, low management and small form-factor client that he believed would make the thin server, or ThiinServer, compelling.

Today of course, thin servers can be found in racks the world over, and while thin clients have never really threatened the PC, West was correct that there was a decent market there that DG could have attacked. In the end West was, as usual, slightly ahead of the market, and before the market could catch up with his designs, DG had been bought by EMC and ThiinLine was abandoned, as was his Aviion NUMA architecture.

Later on the day of my ThiinLine labs visit, West took a bunch of us sailing on an old frigate – he was a sailing nut. He didn’t say much — he clearly liked being out on the water more than talking to people – but he said he was frustrated that he couldn’t get the company to put more money into his ThiinLine project to really get it motoring. Perhaps he knew, with the firm looking for a buyer, that his project had run out of time.

Asked what he would do after retirement, West said, “Buy a big boat and sail the world.” He didn’t mention taking anyone with him, though that could have just been the way he said it. I asked, “If Tracy Kidder knocked on the door and asked if you would help in the writing of that book again, what would you say?” West didn’t have to think for a second before replying, “I’d meet him at the end of the drive with a gun.” I remember only then realizing that Kidder was a man, because I too had assumed he was a woman. But I also remember thinking that clearly, not everyone likes being famous.

Cane’s article for the Financial Times is here.

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