I was once placed inside a mainframe …

... allow me to explain.

I was born in 1970 and did not have my first exposure a computer until I was nine or ten.  My mother enrolled me in a summer work program at the local library where they had a Radio Shack TRS-80.  I got addicted to this text-based Star Wars game where you attempt to fly your X through the trench in the Death Star while shooting down and avoidng T's.  At the last moment, you would hit the spacebar to launch your torpedos in a final attempt to destory the space station.  It was at this point that the program would fail with some cryptic error message.  Desperately wanting the climax of the destruction of the Empire's most feared weapon, I embarked upon a journey that ultimately has me working where I do today ... here at Microsoft.

My father worked at Caltech, and later at NASA's Jet Propulsion Labs, and helped to guide my interest by buying me a book on TRS-80 BASIC.  I'll never forget that book ... drab, green cover, brown paper pages and well worn.  He also brought home a DEC VT-52 terminal and an acoustic coupler modem into which we plugged the handset of our rotary phone and connected to my first big computer ... a VAX 11/750.

My experience with the VAX and VMS lead me through experiences with BASIC, FORTRAN, Fourth, Fifth, Pascal and C.  It wasn't until 1988 that I would see a VAX first hand where I took a job with a company developing a document management system that held its entire back-end on VAX 11/780s.

In 1991 I moved to Chicago and continued my career in building document management systems.  It happend to be a fantastic fit for me because the backend was based entirely upon VMS and I became exposed to DEC VAXstations running DECWindows (DEC's implementation of the X Window System) as clients.  Once someone figured out that those clients were amazingly expensive, Sun SPARCstations became the preferred clients as well as some DEC Ultrix boxes.  (Are you beginning to sense that I have quite a sortid history?)

Through all of this I managed to miss the entire mainframe experience.  I never wrote JCL.  The only COBOL I ever wrote was on VMS to fill in for someone who had left - and I don't claim to be a COBOL programmer.  I had never touched at 3270 terminal.  I had no experience with SNA.  In fact, the only exposure I had to Big Blue was an IBM PC AT my father had bought in order to port a word processor to MS-DOS that was running on VMS.

As time marched on and we got smart about the cost of systems.  Running a document management system on VAXes with big Sony jukeboxes and proprietary file systems along with Sun SPARCstations on the desktop was what one would consider to have a "low total cost of ownership."  Through a stroke of luck, a friend - and competitor - of mine at TRW had introduced me to Windows NT 4.0 and its flat, 32-bit memory and programming model and thus began my journey into commodity hardware, software and building ever more complex business systems with lower and lower TCO.

At this point, you have to be wondering how this relates to me being placed inside a mainframe.  It'll all come together in a moment.

As we rebuilt our system to run under Windows NT 4.0 on the servers and Windows for Workgroups 3.11 on the desktop - it was a pity we couldn't get a good 32-bit programming model on the desktop during the early 1990s - we reached a point where we needed connectivity to the mainframe.  In the early 1990s, TCP/IP was just becoming the perferred network protocol and that was our preferred method of connecting to everything.  But as it was explained to me, you didn't "buy" TCP/IP for the mainframe because it was just too expensive.  Instead, you "leased" TCP/IP for the mainframe for an ungodly amount.  Having just come from big, expensive and proprietary sytems and making the move to low cost Intel servers running Windows, we knew there was a better way.  Enter Microsoft SNA Server!

SNA Server - now Host Integration Server - has got to be one of the best products Microsoft has ever produced.  SNA Server embodied the "it just works" slogan.  A buddy and I spent a week reading up on how to install and configure SNA Server, worked with our reseller to get the proper hardware, hooked up with another friend in the data center who shared our vision and were able to channel attach our AT&T sever running Windows NT 4.0 and SNA Server to the mainframe.  I will never forget the elation of telnetting to our VAX and from there using TGV MultiNet and telnetting to the mainframe ... all for about $5,000!

Mind you, up to this point I had never seen a mainframe!  That in itself is a testimony to what a great product SNA Server was - and Host Integration Server continues to be today.  When I mentioned this to my data center buddy, he was happy to round out my computing experience by showing me a mainframe.

Now, let me tell you another thing that sucks about being a little man ... at 5' 4" a fully loaded mainframe and its associated DASD makes you realize that 5' 4" really is short.  Leo - my data center buddy - proceeded to open a cabinet on the mainframe and instructed me to examine the "blinking lights inside."  Inside?  I've never stepped inside a computer before.  With some intrepediation I peered into the darkness, stepped inside and heard a "click" followed by laughter of my friends behind me.  Having just stepped into some sort of expansion cabinet for the mainframe, Leo and the rest of my friends proceeded to let me enjoy my mainframe experience for a few minutes before finally unlocking the cabinet door and permitting me to return to the artifical light of the data center.

And that, my friends, is how I was once placed inside a mainframe.

Comments (6)

  1. Typhoon121 says:

    This is a great story but you never said wether you fixed the cryptic error (Predeasseror to the BSOD?? Perhaps) and got to defeat the empire. I am 6 ft 4 so I unfortantly can not be placed in a mainframe.

  2. It never got fixed.

    What happend was that in my intoduction to the VAX, there was another text mode game (written in FORTRAN, I believe) called Universe. Universe was one of those Star Trek-derived text games buch much, much bigger. I ended up spending hours (months?) playing this game which was loaded with some pretty rich scenarios

    It’d be awesome to find that game today …

  3. A lot of these Microsoft Blogs are taking me down memory lane. . .

    I remember that Star Wars game on the TRS-80, you had to type the whole program in and run it, unless you were lucky enough to have a tape recorder (Save, Load, BLoad??) you’d either leave the thing on forever or retype it the next time.

    I don’t remember the error though at the end, I still have the program and the computer, just don’t have the time to type all that stuff in (disk drives have to be out of alignment by now).

    I do remember teaching myself BASIC (and coding principles) by changing lines of code and watching what happened. That kind of "Hands on" approach to learning.

    Apparently, for a lot of us, our first association with Microsoft was with the embedded BASIC programming language. If memory serves me correct the prompt in the TRS-80 had a "Copyright Microsoft 1980" message…


  4. Donald Riley says:

    What happend was that in my intoduction to the VAX, there was another text mode game (written in FORTRAN, I believe) called Universe. Universe was one of those Star Trek-derived text games buch much, much bigger. I ended up spending hours (months?) playing this game which was loaded with some pretty rich scenarios

    It’d be awesome to find that game today …

    That game can be found on the mvb.saic.com website in the vax80b/universe directory.

    Am I trying to get it running on my Alpha, and keep Super StarTrek runnin as well. Some sort of fortran library conflict, and compiler issues as well.

    Best of Luck with your search.

    Donald Riley

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