IT systems evolve, but the challenges remain

The hurdles faced by PC pioneers in delivering affordable, usable and manageable computers are still very much at the heart of modern IT

Looking back at how we worked 40 years ago and our priorities, it seems that the challenges in the 1970s were incredibly similar to those that are faced today.

In the past 40 years there have been many significant advances in technology. Being at the forefront of technological innovation today is just as intriguing and exciting as it was in 1971, when I began work at an IBM think tank, some of the findings of which found their way into Project Chess, the development of the personal computer.

This multinational task force was assembled from countries including the UK, France, Germany and the US.

The team was given special authorisation to bypass normal company restrictions to review the business needs for a computer system and enable IBM to get a product to market as effectively as possible, while ensuring maintenance, support and upgrades were addressed in a practical and pragmatic fashion.

Remember, this was a time when IBM ruled the computer industry roost. It was the era of the mainframe and the data processing department, when computers were run by teams of highly skilled people - the data priests and priestesses who resided over the precious computer system resources.

They fed in the right numbers into rooms full of large, expensive boxes to produce reams of line printer output that business executives could then mull over. Online systems were a rarity and relatively expensive.

It is fair to say that, for most, access to data processing was restricted or limited. A request for a report could take several days, or even weeks, before the relevant information was handed to a business executive. In general, we were working in a batch-oriented world.

At that time, IBM realised that there would be huge demand for computer systems to assist businesses in organising their commercial applications, data and corporate information.

With the limited success of systems such as the IBM 5100, it was clear that the approach to the future market potential, in a broad sense for all systems, had to be re-assessed.

The biggest hurdle that had to be overcome at IBM during 1971 was changing the traditional approach internally. The research project, which looked at the business needs of a company, not the technological requirements, indicated that a small, or micro, computer system was needed.

This was a difficult concept to accept given that mainframes were the essence of the ­market and the company at that time.

As well as reviewing the business requirements, the cost of the system was taken into consideration, and the target set at $1,000.

Once this concept was agreed and finalised, Don Estridge, who had been part of the initial and early discussions, and his team of engineers went on to design and develop a system which became the known as the PC, and was launched 10 years later in 1981.

Looking back at how we worked then and our priorities, it seems that the challenges in the 1970s were incredibly similar to those that are faced today.

There was an appreciation that any business system needed to be affordable, installable, maintainable and upgradeable to provide support and enhancements effectively and profitably. I know that, for many, it is hard to imagine now, but back then we were all of a mainframe mindset.

Believe it or not, we aspired to provide the kind of service and support that many end-users take for granted today.

In my 30-plus years in the IT industry, technology has changed and advanced beyond all recognition and it is being used in ways that many at that time would have found difficult to imagine.

Yet many of the challenges are the same - someone still has to take responsibility for installing the system and ensuring it is up to date.

What we learned from Project Chess about affordable, usable and manageable computers still resonates today and is very much at the heart of modern IT.

Alan Wallman is vice-president EMEA at storage networking supplier Emulex and sits on the board of the Storage Networking Industry Association Europe

More about the birth of the PC: www-03.ibm.com/ibm/history/exhibits/pc/p1.html

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