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DBMS pioneer Bachman: 'Engineers have more fun than academics'

Very large databases are so '70s

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Fifty years ago this month a young engineer at mega corp General Electric was on the verge of completing a project that would change technology.

Charlie Bachman was working on Integrated Data Store (IDS), the first disk-based database management system (DBMS) that could be accessed by apps simultaneously. IDS made data independent of applications.

IDS came to be acknowledged as the world's first "proper" database and evolved to become one of the most important components of large data processing systems. The network model IDS employed, meanwhile, is still operational in more than a thousand applications worldwide.

BT, for example, processes 275 million transactions a day using the most successful descendant of IDS – CA-IDMS.

By 1973, when IBM's Ted Codd was writing his first paper on relational technology, Bachman had been awarded the prestigious Turing Award for his work on DBMS and he also has the distinction of being the senior Distinguished Fellow of the British Computing Society (BCS).

What makes this even more remarkable is the fact Bachman has dyslexia.

Talking to The Reg this month, Bachman reckons his dyslexia may have worked to his advantage: "I found reading harder than writing so I've always been in a situation where I was writing the forward-looking article because I didn't know what others were doing."

"My career just kind of happened. Rather than taking deliberate steps I just followed the flow" – Charlie Bachman

He did point out, however: "If you are not careful this can catch up with you because it makes it hard to keep up well with what is going on in parallel."

Fifty years after that initial breakthrough, Bachman is still working – consulting on DBMS, writing a book on data modelling and helping edit a biography by Thomas Haigh of the Charles Babbage Institute.

Unusually for someone who has contributed so many ideas to the development of computing, Bachman says he has never been an "academic". Instead, Bachman preferred a career as a practising engineer in a commercial environment.

"I think engineers have more fun than academics," he tells us. "The next project is always different – a fresh challenge – not like teaching the same thing to a new batch of students every year.

"My career just kind of happened. Rather than taking deliberate steps I just followed the flow. I was a good student at school although not necessarily the best. But I consider myself as a late developer because I was dyslexic."

Born in 1924, Bachman's first experience of computers came with the US Army in the Pacific in WWII. His Computer History Museum bio says he used the fire control computers to aim 90mm anti-aircraft guns. After the war, Bachman earned a masters degree in mechanical engineering and, in 1950, he joined Dow Chemical as an engineer. The first seeds of what would become IDS were sown there.

"I suppose it started when I went to work at Dow Chemical. One of my first assignments was to evaluate two valves for a chemical process we had. One valve cost $5,000 more than the other – but it took less power to operate and cost less to maintain.

Turning the expense valve

"So, in the long run, the expensive valve worked out to be more economical. I came up with the idea of equivalent capital value to help figure out what the return on investment could be. We went on to work out sets of tables that engineers could use to work out the equivalent capital value."

The tables data was punched into cards to create a primitive database, which could be used for different analyses.

When Bachman moved on to General Electric in 1960, the idea of data being independent of applications had begun to form and, as part of GE's new manufacturing control system (MIACS), IDS began to take shape.

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