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Data General's Tom West dies

The man who put the soul into a new machine

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Killing his own creation

West helped author a report in 1988 recommending that DG should develop hardware systems using commodity microcomputers, instead of building its own proprietary processor, to run Unix better than anybody else. In other words he was responsible for giving life to the MV/8000 and now proposed killing it. DG CEO Edson De Castro agreed with the proposal and the MV line was run down.

A Motorola 88000 product line called AViiON was started up; it ran Unix and therefore all Unix apps that could run on the 88000 processor. Some say that West saved DG's bacon a second time by killing off his own MV/8000 creation and moving to the 88000.

Over time it became apparent that the 88000 was not succeeding against Intel's X86 line of processors, and Motorola killed it off. DG transitioned to the X86 but wasn't able to differentiate its hardware enough and sales revenues fell.

A high-availability storage array was created to run with it the AViiON, and then with other DG computers. It became branded CLARiiON, and was the reason EMC bought the much weakened DG in 1999. CLARiiON arrays have survived to this era, only being replaced by the VNX line earlier this year.

Missing the networked desktop

From a personality point of view West was seen as aloof, passing people in DG's corridors without acknowledging them. It's been said that this attitude permeated DG and it wasn't that good at internal communications. West was seen as a rackmount minicomputer and then microcomputer man. He would be called a server guy today. Back then it seemed he thought workstations and networks, other than networks bringing clients to his MV/8000 and then AViiON systems, were minor irrelevancies, and destined to stay that way.

So DG didn't seriously get into workstations, even though one El Reg correspondent said: "DG developed an 88000-based DG-UX workstation codenamed Maverick that blew the doors off the then-current flavour of Sun, but Tom had it killed."

He was also thought to have a less than stellar record with networking - this was long before Cisco was rampantly dominant - and DG could have had a router offering to go with its bridges, terminal servers and hubs, but it couldn't settle on a protocol stack, TCP/IP then not being dominant. No DG router emerged, and one view is that West effectively had DG's networking products killed off and thrown away.

DG development teams not favoured by West became, it's said, quite bitter about being kept outside the magic circle. This has been said about the workstation, networking, disk, tape and printer groups. But times were hard at DG, with development funds in short supply, and West bestrode the development effort like DG's in-house colossus. His computer projects got the lion's share of the funds. Regrettably, though, he did not see the era of client:server computing and distributed desktops and that blind spot helped cause DG's demise.

Our correspondent said: "There were a lot of 'Tom Wests' in the Massachusetts minicomputer world toward the end, and not all of them worked at DG - or DEC.  The failure to see that that which had worked marvellously well for 20 years was now irrelevant was endemic to the industry, and the people who couldn't see beyond their noses killed the whole Rt. 128 scene dead."

West saved DG

The straight truth is that "without Tom West driving the development of the MV/8000 there would have been no MV/8000, and DG would have died altogether circa 1980." Because of Kidder's book West became, for a while, the most famous computer engineer in the world.

He deserved that accolade and, with the MV/8000 skunkworks led a group of people, many of whom would have been classed as no-hopers, to produce a machine absolutely crucial to DG's future. It was his finest hour and a triumph. Read Kidder's book if you can find it, if only for nostalgia. We won't experience those days again.

West retired in the late 1990s and spent part of his time sailing. He is survived by two daughters, two ex-wives and a sister. ®

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