Dispatches, thoughts, and miscellanea from writer Jon Konrath

What’s old is old

So this guy built a scale model of a Cray 1 computer, and not just a bunch of model railroad plastic and some Testor’s spray paint, but a WORKING model.  The original Cray took 72 printed circuit boards covered back to back with chips; this guy was able to use a single Field-Programmable Gate Array, which is sort of to computers what the build-a-bear store in the mall is to stuffed animals.  It’s a single board maybe the size of a big index card that you program usually from a USB port and a PC to basically configure into a system of your choosing.  Like if you had all of the schematics of an old Nintendo and you were really jonesing to play some NES in a binary-compatible way, you could waste some weekends and blow a few hundred bucks on an Xilinx board and figure out how to splice in a set of joysticks and rip the images off the cartridges, and you’d essentially have your own Nintendo.  Of course, you could go on eBay and for like twenty bucks get an old NES, or you could download an emulator and a bunch of booted cartridges and within a few minutes you’d be playing Mario in a little window on your Mac or PC.  But where’s the fun in that?

The Cray always compelled me in college.  It’s such a distinctive design, and just the thought of ever using one was like talking about the possibilities of bedding a Victoria’s Secret model.  I mean, we had a lot of old iron at IU, rows of VAXes and some old IBM monsters they used for payroll.  I worked in the machine room a night a week in 1993, and used to marvel at the setup there.  They had the elevated floors, the sterile white everywhere, the tons of cables from the floor, and massive cooling systems, and the ominous halon system that would kill all living things in the flip of a switch, but prevent a runaway system from taking down the whole building in a flash fire.  But the jokes about winning the lottery and buying a Cray – the word “Cray” just became synonymous with the ultimate of the ultimate computer.  It was like the Ferrari of computers; expensive, hand-built, hand-crafted, designed for speed, and completely impractical.

I remember the movie Sneakers –  I went and saw this movie I think three times with three different dates in the fall of 1992.  My life was in that much flux then, but the movie was that good.  (I should re-watch it, now that I actually live here and cross the Dumbarton every day.)  Anyway, there was a scene where Bishop has been captured and is in Cosmo’s high-tech lair, which basically looks like the 1992 super-high-end geek chic place, and he brings him into a little enclosed room and they sit on this weird Star Trek looking bench.  Only it’s not a bench – it’s a Cray Y-MP supercomputer.  I always flipped out when I saw that, and would excitedly tell date of that evening “that’s like a five million dollar computer!”  Because of course I thought I was some dumb-fuck insider for knowing what a Cray looked like, and having a badge card that opened a machine room filled with computers in the middle of a state that was nothing but corn and farmers.

A 16-CPU Cray Y-MP back in 1991 cranked out about 16 Mflops (millions of floating-point operations per second), had to be trucked and assembled in place, and had a cooling system that probably cost way more than you could imagine.  It also needed some massive power wiring, and could not be plugged into the 6-outlet power snake sitting behind your computer desk.  The iPhone 4 in your pocket can crank out something like 20 Mflops, plus play your favorite tunes and videos and enable you to call home to ask if you need milk when you’re in the grocery store.  So the people who were doing digital models of complicated physics equations to calculate how atomic bomb designs would work were using less processing power than the little thing you hold in your hand that you bitch about running too slow when you get too many text messages with attached JPEGs of your friend’s butts.

What is the Cray of today?  I mean, I know they have these massive supercomputers – my pal Simms still works on this stuff.  But now, a supercomputer means racks and racks of commodity servers, the same Dell blades you might use to run intranet servers in your boring business, all chained together to make a massively parallel beast that slices up complex programs into little wafers and passes them around, then collates together the simple answers into a final tally.  It’s not as sexy as the high-gloss enamel red and charcoal grey panels of the iconic shaped case of a Cray; it’s a bunch of servers in racks.  It’s like lamenting the passing of the old era of high-HP Lambos and Porsches and having someone say “well here’s a Budget rent-a-car lot filled with Toyota Corollas, and if you add up all their horsepower, it’s way more than that of a 67 Shelby Mustang GT.”

I always wonder what would happen if I went back to 1992 and showed the 1992 me the iPhone and explained that I could send emails and take digital pictures and swing them across the ether for only $70 a month.  I also wonder if the 2010 me sat down in front of a VT240 and logged into a VAXCluster and was presented with the $ prompt again, if I would be amazed or horrified.  I could see part of me fascinated at looking at the file system again, seeing how $DISK53 still looked, but I could also see the first time I checked my disk quota and saw that my digital watch has more free memory, I would freak out.