Monday, April 26, 2010

Dead or merely hibernating?

Here are those pictures of a VAX 1/780, taken at UW's CS/EE building yesterday during their Engineering open house.

It looks dead but the sci-fi geek in me started thinking about Keith Laumer's short story 'Relic of War', in which an apparently destroyed tank reawakens to reveal itself as a formidable Bolo robot fighting tank...

VAX 11/780 vs. Android

I posted some pics of a VAX 11/780 elsewhere and a friend asked how MUCH faster my Android phone is than the venerable VAX. this is my response:

That's an excellent question, Emmett, and one which piqued my interest (to a surprising extent, given that it's the first good riding day in a while and I have a motorcycle just past breakin in the garage). So I took a look at the numbers and it's not even's not a "tortoise and hare" level difference, more like "sick banana slug and hungry cheetah" order difference.

Here goes:

Processor speed:
The VAX 11/780, while it might have been the rock star of the sub-mainframe world in 1978, operates at a less-than-impressive processor frequency that is probably in the 1-4 MHz range. Even taking it at an optimistic 4 MHz, the Android's Cortex A8 processor crunches numbers at a blistering 550 MHz. By my calculations, that makes the Android's processor somewhat more than 2 orders of magnitude faster; more than 100 times faster, perhaps as much as 200x or more, depending on the VAX's actual speed.

The VAX 11/780 pictured here would run with a maximum of 4 MB of memory. I remember this being sorta impressive in 1984 but now the Droid comes by default with 16 GB and will take up to 32...almost 4 order of magnitude difference. The Android is like Albert Einstein, in his prime, after 3 mochas; the VAX, in comparison, like Britney Spears in 60 years, with Alzheimer's.

The VAX processor itself, without persistent storage, was a pretty good size cabinet...something like 4 1/2 feet wide x high. That would make it pretty much an expensive item of furniture, however: adding a couple disk drives and a tape drive or two for backups and you're pretty much taking up a whole room. A room with an elevated floor and extensive air conditioning requirements. The sucker would have the carbon footprint (or tentacleprint) of a kraken.

Intangibles (coolness):
The VAX 11/780 was certainly cool to a lot of geeks in the late 70s and early 80s but I question whether anyone actually got a date based on its sex appeal because they worked on a VAX: you couldn't even work a feeble "this is a VAX in my pocket *AND* I'm glad to see you" joke unless you were Godzilla.

Droids, on the other hand are if I was young and single I might have a shot at impressing a girl with one. On the other hand, they might have their own and sneer at the apps I had installed. So it'd be just like the 80s all over again, in that respect.