The Old Ones Are the Best

It’s an interesting phenomenon that chip speed and memory size both keep increasing in leaps and bounds, yet laptop performance continues to get slower. It’s always been the case as far as I can recall. In the Seventies I was assured that program efficiency was no longer desirable as processor speed and storage would be plentiful in the future. I was advised badly, though the software vendors certainly took this on board because they’ve long been eating up more resource than they require.

So it’s always a pleasure to revisit a simple design from the past and see it pitted against today’s technology. I’m referring of course to the tests of the re-built Colossus at Bletchley Park, currently being used to crack intercepted enciphered radio messages in competition with modern PC technology. Of course it’s a publicity stunt, but it also demonstrates an important learning point, as well as highlighting an impressive piece of engineering by Tony Sale, an early pioneer of the use of technology for intelligence purposes.

The point to note is that an efficient, purpose-built design will for many decades outperform the latest general-purpose technology. It’s because vendors build in huge amounts of inefficiency, in their chip designs, operating systems, protocols, database systems and applications. There are many reasons for this: financial constraints, design by committee, need to maximise features, as well as plain old incompetency. The learning point for security is not to underestimate the potential power of purpose-built code-breaking or monitoring technology. Colossus might be an exceptional piece of engineering. But as they say, exceptio probat regulam in casibus non exceptis.

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