[AUUG-Talk]: From TUHS: Early Unix story:- programmer takes Unix tools into IBM, big result.

steve jenkin stevej098 at gmail.com
Sat Dec 10 15:15:12 AEDT 2022

This is a good story from 1986 of the power Unix tools, “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants”, brought to general computing.

With a couple of months work, Marc Donner changed a $50 million problem (50 x $1m machines) with a year delay to get approval,
into something near trivial - 50 x PC’s… This little project took a 24-hr delay out of processing Silicon Wafers.

He used lex & yacc to implement a Domain Specific Language, C to implement the logic / functionality,
then ‘make’ to not just build the tool, but to (automatically) run regression tests on each build - a novel concept to the existing support team.
No mention if he introduced Source Code Control as well.

PERL may be the “Swiss Army Chainsaw” of scripting languages,
but Unix/Linux is definitely the “Chainsaw” solution for most computing problems.

I’ve collected other stories of Performance Multipliers using Unix.
Rob Kolstad has written about a 2000x improvement.

In a half-day, he produced a solution to a problem that “Bob” had taken a year, and a lot of overtime, to develop.
It was mission critical for the business - routing wire wrap paths between chips.

Rob K. had been asked to look at the code to improve performance - on a SPARC, the routing took over 24hrs.
Rob’s estimate of the speed-up he could achieve was out by a factor of 2…

His 1/2 day solution took 1 second to run, a speed up of around 100,000x.
It was also driven by user-maintained config files of chip pin-outs making the tool maintenance-free.

Rob K ends his story with “Bob got fired”.


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At one point near the end of the project I had a long reflective conversation with my Fishkill minder.  
He spun a metaphor about what I had done with this project.  

Roughly speaking, he said, 

	“We were a bunch of guys cutting down trees by beating on them with stones.  
	We heard that there was this thing called an axe, 
	and someone sent a guy we thought would show us how to cut down trees with an axe.
	 Imagine our surprise when he whipped out a chainsaw.”

Steve Jenkin, IT Systems and Design 
0412 786 915 (+61 412 786 915)
PO Box 38, Kippax ACT 2615, AUSTRALIA

stevej098 at gmail.com

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