The Ongoing Story of the Route 128 Minicomputer Industry
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memory boards for minicomputers. In 1999 EMC bought Data General and in that way got hold of the sophisticated software technology behind the minicomputer manufacturer’s Clariion hard-disk arrays. Since then, EMC’s Clariion line of disk arrays has accounted for billions of dollars in revenues, far more than Data General ever got from its computer business.
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An exception to the extinction of minicomputer firms is Stratus Technologies. The Stratus headquarters is like a piece of Silicon Valley in New England, a complex of low buildings in a park-like environment that makes 110 Powder Mill Road on the outskirts of Maynard, MA, eerily similar to the offices and labs along Page Mill Road in Palo Alto. This used to be the head office of Digital Equipment Corporation in its final years, after it had moved out of The Mill.
Of all the minicomputer firms that once made up the Route 128 cluster, Stratus is the only one still operating under its old name. I visited the company to find out more about what made Stratus from its employee No. 5, software engineer Paul Green. He joined the company, then based in Marlborough, MA, in April 1980. Stratus started that year as a maker of fault-tolerant mini-computers, machines that had more or less every function doubled or quadrupled to ensure extremely high reliability. Since then, the company has gone through a series of transformations in the form of buyouts, mergers, and spinoffs before emerging in its present form.
“I think there are several reasons why we’re here and the others are not,” Green says. “It is an interesting question, and one that I have thought about a great deal. Innovation and consolidation are opposing forces. At some point an idea wins out and is adopted as a standard, a real standard or a de facto standard. When I started in the industry hardware was proprietary, the operating systems were proprietary, the programming languages were at least semi-standard. Now we take it for granted that there is all this standard software. It is still a lot of innovation going on, but it has moved into new spaces.
“This whole process is very brutal, there are great forces at play. The PC has changed the whole pricing scheme for computers. It has in many ways sucked the profits out of the hardware business, it is brutal to be a hardware firm. That is basically how you knock out the established companies as an upstart, you change the rules of the game.”
Instead of seeing itself as a hardware manufacturer, Stratus identified its core competence as being a provider of fault-tolerant, high-reliability information processing systems. The software can either run on Stratus high-end proprietary hardware or on standard server platforms. Last month, the company even launched its first pure software product, Avance, which transforms two ordinary servers, regardless of manufacturer, into a computer system with more than 99.99 percent availability.
Whether in the case of an individual company or an entire sector, the ability to reinvent oneself has been a hallmark of New England innovation. As Michael Best, retired co-director of the Center for Industrial Competitiveness at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, observed last year in the Boston Globe, “Massachusetts has lost more industries than any region in the world, but has also created more industries than any other region.”