Client-Server Systems

It seems to me…

In the very early 1980s, NASA initially had planned to construct another proprietary computing system similar to the obsolete ILLIAC IV, which had been built under contract by Burroughs, but to incorporate the very latest available technology.  Requests for bids for the new contract were requested and received from several computer manufacturers.  General Electric Space Systems was contracted to review the submitted bids and select the winning proposal.  Since I previously had been employed at Control Data Corporation which, prior to Seymour Cray leaving CDC to start his own company, was the only company producing “supercomputers”, it was thought I might have some expertise in the selection process.

All the bids received were considerably over initial budget projections and consequently rejected.  It eventually was decided that rather than building another proprietary system, NASA would purchase three of the latest most powerful computers available on the open market and replace the slowest about every three years.

As part of a totally separate unrelated contract, I had been a member of a team working on a proprietary system proposal for a distributed image exploitation application.  Images stored on videodisk carrousels were to be located and displayed on the appropriate analyst’s workstation within a specified amount of time.

We initially were unable to meet the time requirements until I recommended scrapping our computer-centric design and reorienting it around a new network system similar to one being developed at Xerox PARC just up the road from us where I had a number of friends.  (The network speed at that time still was not sufficient so we actually proposed a hardware switch in the initial proposal.)  While probably not the first project to use this type of architecture, I wasn’t familiar with any other at that time and called it a “server-oriented architecture” in the proposal.

After submitting our proposal to the customer and prior to the actual contract award, I was contracted through General Electric Space Systems to write a Systems Concept document for the NASA Ames Numerical Aerodynamic Simulator (NAS) for the large supercomputing system replacing the ILLIAC IV.

Though I proposed a design fairly similar to the one recommended in the previous proprietary proposal, the System Concepts proposal approved by NASA is another example of how things are not supposed to be done.

I was the project leader of a small group of about four people assigned to write the NAS Systems Concepts document.  We had written two fairly detail proposals but each was rejected without any constructive feedback as to NASA’s objections concerning the recommended design.  The value of the contract was estimated to be about $309 million and I was very concerned about the consequences if our recommendations were rejected for a third time.

The night following rejection of the second proposal, my wife Barb, and I were at the home of Gene Greer, who was the NAS contract manager, and his wife Sue for dinner.  Around 9pm after dinner, and at least one bottle of wine, talk turned to the Systems Concepts document.  While Sue cleared the table, we started going over my ideas for the design.  Gene grabbed some paper and started writing as I talked; Barb was given illustrations to draw.  Sue kept making coffee while we worked.

Around 2am, we thought we might have another version of the proposal.  I’m not sure what our administrative assistant, Chris Santorelli, or her husband thought when we called and asked if she would mind coming into the office to type up the proposal but she nevertheless agreed and met us there.  While she typed the proposal, Barb redid all of our illustrations.  I proof-read as anything became available.

The final proposal was finished around 9am the next morning and submitted to NASA.  All of us went home for a nap.  By the time we returned after lunch, the design was approved.

The basic difference between the two rejected design proposals and what NASA finally approved was elimination of many of the design details – there were considerably fewer details to which anyone could object.

Though the design was approved and implemented, it did not proceed entirely without question.  While NASA was willing to try the recommended architecture, other reviewers — especially one at Dataquest — definitely considered it a mistake.  (A couple of years later, while sitting unrecognized in the audience at a supercomputing conference in Santa Clara, CA, the author of the most critical article publicly admitted he had been incorrect in his assessment and apologized for the way he had totally dismissed the architectural design.)

It was not until sometime later that the system architecture was referred to as “client-server” though the numerous Silicon Graphics and Sun workstations in the NASA proposal had been referred to as “clients”.  I would be interested in hearing from anyone with an earlier actual full-scale implementation.

Several years later when thinking about the basic design, I decided it could have been substantially improved by incorporating several peer-to-peer elements.  It would be interesting to know if it could have had any affect on the way large computing systems normally are implement today.  Paradigms being what they are, I wonder…

That’s what I think, what about you?


About lewbornmann

Lewis J. Bornmann has his doctorate in Computer Science. He became a volunteer for the American Red Cross following his retirement from teaching Computer Science, Mathematics, and Information Systems, at Mesa State College in Grand Junction, CO. He previously was on the staff at the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus, Stanford University, and several other universities. Dr. Bornmann has provided emergency assistance in areas devastated by hurricanes, floods, and wildfires. He has responded to emergencies on local Disaster Action Teams (DAT), assisted with Services to Armed Forces (SAF), and taught Disaster Services classes and Health & Safety classes. He and his wife, Barb, are certified operators of the American Red Cross Emergency Communications Response Vehicle (ECRV), a self-contained unit capable of providing satellite-based communications and technology-related assistance at disaster sites. He served on the governing board of a large international professional organization (ACM), was chair of a committee overseeing several hundred worldwide volunteer chapters, helped organize large international conferences, served on numerous technical committees, and presented technical papers at numerous symposiums and conferences. He has numerous Who’s Who citations for his technical and professional contributions and many years of management experience with major corporations including General Electric, Boeing, and as an independent contractor. He was a principal contributor on numerous large technology-related development projects, including having written the Systems Concepts for NASA’s largest supercomputing system at the Ames Research Center in Silicon Valley. With over 40 years of experience in scientific and commercial computer systems management and development, he worked on a wide variety of computer-related systems from small single embedded microprocessor based applications to some of the largest distributed heterogeneous supercomputing systems ever planned.
This entry was posted in Ames, Architecture, Burroughs, CDC, Chris Santorelli, Client-Server, Control Data Corporation, Gene Greer, General Electric, ILLIAC-IV, NASA, Numerical Aerodynamic Simulator, Peer-To-Peer, Seymour Cray, Space Systems, Systems Concepts, Technology, Xerox PARC and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Client-Server Systems

  1. I love your page, it’s nice when you can tell somebody actuallly puts effort into a topic, and gives the designs. If you set up updates value.


  2. Brook Turi says:

    There are actually quite a lot of particulars like that to take into consideration. That may be a nice point to convey up. I provide the thoughts above as normal inspiration but clearly there are questions like the one you bring up where an important factor will likely be working in sincere good faith. I don?t know if best practices have emerged around issues like that, however I’m positive that your job is clearly recognized as a good game. Both boys and girls really feel the influence of only a moment?s pleasure, for the remainder of their lives.


    • lewbornmann says:

      Hindsight always provides a perspective different than how something initially seemed. Experience might be the best teacher but, looking back, there are many things in my life that definitely could have been significantly improved with just a little more forethought and consideration.

      I hope as a university professor that I was able to inspire at least some of my students to always try to improve on their initial attempts at whatever problem, whether professional or personal, they encountered.


  3. Aftter I originally commented I seem to have clicked
    onn tthe -Notify mee whhen new comments are added- chekbox
    aand now eah time a commnt is added I recieve fopur emails wih thhe exact same comment.
    Is there a wway yoou are able to remove mee from that service?


    • lewbornmann says:

      Valerie, while I appreciate your problem, I’m sorry but am not able to make changes to a viewer’s personal settings. Please contact WordPress for information regarding how to either unsubscribe or change any of your settings.


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