Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Killer Micros

I recently wondered about the origins of the phrase, "attack of the killer micros." A little time on Google revealed many attributions of the phrase to Eugene D. Brooks III, who evidently presented a talk with that title at one of the annual Supercomputing conferences around 1989 or 1990 (there are conflicting references, but nothing I can substantiate). Brooks was profiled in the New York Times in May 1990, and the phrase is used as the headline of a May 1991 NY Times article. But I was really after the first, definitive use of the phrase.

Well, this may or may not be it, but Brooks' words appeared this way in the Usenet newsgroup comp.arch on October 15, 1989:

[...] Micros now dominate
the performance game for scalar code and are moving on to vectorizable code.
After all, these little critters mutate and become more voracious every
6 months and vectorizable code is the only thing left for them to conquer.
No NEW technology needs to be developed, all the micro-chip and memory-chip
makers need to do is to decide to take over the supercomputer market.

They will do this with their commodity parts.

Supercomputers of the future will be scalable multiprocessors made of many
hundreds to thousands of commodity microprocessors. They will be commodity
parts because these parts will be the fastest around and they will be cheap.
These scalable machines will have hundreds of commodity disk drives ganged up
for parallel access. Commodity parts will again be used because of the
cost advantage leveraged into a scalable system using commodity parts.
The only custom logic will be the interconnect which glues the system together,
and error correcting logic which glues many disk drives together into a
reliable high performance system. The CM data vault is a very good model here.


This was in a thread, not started by Brooks, entitled "Attack of the Killer Micros." So clearly the phrase had been kicking around before then.

This, BTW, was a bit of a Golden Age for Usenet news groups; The signal/noise ratio was very high, and some very smart, articulate people posted regulary: Brooks, John Mashey, Henry Spencer, Bob Colwell, Eric Raymond, many more. It was also an exciting time in the computer industry, with a lot of architectural experimentation and implementation. Fun browsing for old coots like me. :-)