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Technology - ZDNet - updated 8:15 PM ET Jul 3
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Tuesday July 03 08:15 PM EDT

Goodbye, good friend DEC

By Brett Arquette, eWEEK

Last week, Compaq announced the death of its Alpha line, one of the last remnants of a company that was the bread and butter to many of us aging baby boomers -- Digital Equipment Corp.

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The Alpha technology was the last true DEC product that Compaq still sold and continued to upgrade, and the death of Alpha pulls at my heart stings and takes me back to the 1980s and the two most popular approaches to high-end processing.

As a young guy, I started working as a computer operator in an IBM shop, where my primary duty was hanging tapes. IBM disk space was so expensive that every job sucked in two tapes, and spit out one, then cleared the disk working space.

A few years later I went to work for a hospital that ran all Digital VAXs, and I was both amazed and confused. Jobs ran, but they didn't require an operator to hang tapes. As a matter of fact, the only time tapes were used was for backups. "This is wonderful," I thought. What a cost and time saver. Everything was on disk: the input files, the output files, the database, everything. And the entire operating system could be controlled by a simple little interface called the Digital Command Language.

As a graveyard operator, I had a lot of free time to learn DCL, and in a few short months had virtually automated the entire midnight shift by writing a series of command files that made up an application I called Robocop. When I came on duty, I would crank up Robocop and fall asleep. As the job phases ran, Robocop would check each job for errors; if it found any, it would stop all the jobs and beep on my terminal, waking me just long enough to call a programmer who would dial in and fix the problem. Once the job was fixed, Robocop would start the job phases, fill out the operator log and wake me just in time to make coffee before the managers came in. Little did I know that my laziness had made me an expert in DCL, and I soon moved up to Computer Analyst, then Manager, then Director, which lead me to my current CTO position.

The Alpha technology was the first true 64-bit chip, maybe 10 years ahead of its time, and it absolutely screamed. Only now are we seeing companies such as Intel making noises in the 64-bit arena, even as Compaq lets the world's first flagship 64-bit chip die on the vine. When Digital was Digital, you could expect your DEC sales rep to call you once a month to see if you needed anything or to tell you the latest and greatest stuff they were coming out with. Once Compaq took over, I never received another call. It's no wonder the Alpha line went down the tubes, and I'm still mystified by the acquisition and what Compaq got out of it.

I will always have a warm place in my heart for Digital and am mindful of how the company and its products influenced and guided my career. I almost think of Alpha as a transplanted organ that continues to thump away in a Compaq body. So now, as Compaq removes the respirator and pulls the plug on Alpha, I'd like to take a moment and say "thank you" to the thousands of brilliant people who worked at DEC and wish you all the best, wherever life takes you. It was a great ride.

E-mail Brett Arquette at barq@iag.net.

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