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The PERQ Computer
SCIENCE RESEARCH COUNCIL
INFORMATION ENGINEERING COMMITTEE
COMPUTING & COMMUNICATIONS SUB-COMMITTEE (CC/79-80/24)
15 February 1980
The work of Xerox PARC has stimulated world-wide interest in networks of powerful single user systems. The DCS Programme has purchased a number of small single user systems (LSI-11s, Teraks) having only some of the properties of Alto-like systems. The DCS Programme is currently funding the development of an interconnection system (Cambridge ring) for such systems.
The main components of a single user system are:
- High Speed User Microprogrammable Processor.
- Large Virtual Memory (M bytes) and local filestore.
- Large High Quality Display with user-friendly input devices.
- Fast Communication Interface to link it to other similar systems and central facilities.
- Low Cost - less than £10K initially.
In May 1979, Three Rivers Corporation announced a system, the PERQ personal computer, which fulfills most of these functions. Full details are given in Appendix 1. It was clear that a commercially available Alto-like system (but more powerful) at a reasonable price (about £10K) would have a significant effect on the UK research scene. The DCS field is an immediate customer for such devices but it is already clear that this development will affect the whole of computing science as DCS techniques become more widespread. Indeed, the successful marketing of such a device will impact most computer related research, especially Office Automation. For instance, the SRC's Interactive Computing Facility expect such systems to be the primary CAD tool in the years to come. Also, the Special Interest Group in Artificial Intelligence see the need to develop such systems to handle specific applications. In order to evaluate the system as early as possible, SRC managed to get the British Embassy in Washington to order a system on their behalf. In fact, SRC were the first company to place an order with Three Rivers (June 1979).
It was also clear that once it became known that such systems were on the market, SRC would get many grant applications requesting this system and this would involve the SRC in the purchase of a considerable amount of USA equipment. Fortunately the DCS Academic Coordinator, R W Witty, had been having discussions with ICL concerning the DCS Programme and ICL's internal research projects in this area. The possibility of ICL producing systems of this type quickly, by some means, was broached. ICL responded positively and it is now possible to summarise the current position. A timetable of the main events so far is given as Appendix 2.
Subsequent sections give more details of Three Rivers, ICL and SRC's current positions. Finally, some specific proposals are made as to how to proceed.
2. THREE RIVERS
Three Rivers is a small company (less than 50 employees) in Pittsburgh which has specialised in the production of high quality graphics equipment over the last few years. Its electrostatic refresh display is probably the fastest display on the market. Its high quality colour raster system is also well regarded in the USA.
Brian Rosen, the developer of the PERQ, was previously at Xerox. The PERQ was officially launched at SIGGRAPH in Chicago (August 1979). The prototype system was on show but with very little software. The original intention was to ship a maximum of 25 systems in 1979 to selected sites. Delivery of the SRC's system was initially scheduled for October but is now likely to be February. The Company has had problems with supplies of specific parts from other companies.
A major problem with Three Rivers is that the company is small and it will be difficult for them to increase production to handle the orders coming in. There are signs that the company has a significant product and that it will be difficult to get their product to the market place in sufficient quantities to satisfy demand.
ICL have been actively involved in a number of research projects aiming at the development of a substantial single user system and, in particular, looking at the problems associated with a highly reliable distributed system.
In September SRC discussed with ICL the possibility of ICL marketing the PERQ. A number of suggestions were made, ranging from ICL buying up Three Rivers, to being just the local agent and providing maintenance. As a result of these discussions, ICL sent Roger Vinnicombe to talk to Three Rivers in October, and later, the ICL Utica plant did a formal evaluation of the product.
ICL are negotiating an option with Three Rivers that will allow ICL to market and possibly produce PERQ systems for the European market. ICL have placed an order with Three Rivers for an early delivery of a second PERQ to the UK.
Discussions have continued between SRC and ICL concerning the best way of getting PERQ systems into use in the UK with adequate software to make the product a success.
There is strong interest in the PERQ from other sources. Edinburgh University, both through its own in-house programme and in collaboration with the ICF, is keen to be involved in the development of the system. Discussions have taken place between ICL, Edinburgh and SRC.
The PERQ computer is a significant advance on existing single user systems. ICL's initiative gives the opportunity for such systems to be purchased from a UK company. Already SRC is starting to receive grant applications requesting funds to purchase PERQ systems from Three Rivers and develop software. These will be passed to the DCS Panel.
The following recommendations are made:
- Coordination of grant applications requesting PERQ systems is desirable, especially if investigators are attempting to enhance the basic software. The DCS Panel is an appropriate body to provide such coordination initially.
- Subject to a satisfactory outcome of the negotiations between ICL and Three Rivers, the ICL initiative should be supported by negotiating all SRC purchases of PERQ systems from ICL and providing them through the DCS equipment pool in sufficient quantities to meet the research needs of the Universities. Early systems would be obtained by ICL from Three Rivers while later ones would be produced by ICL. Maintenance for all systems would be provided by ICL.
- SRC should be asked for funds for PERQ purchase of the order of £150K - £200K per annum for the next three years.
The implementation of the above recommendations would:
- provide support and encouragement for a timely initiative by British industry;
- provide a practical stimulus to UK research;
- create an efficient mechanism to feed the benefits of UK research directly into British industry;
- foster improved links between the research and industrial communities;
- make UK research more cost-effective in this area by promoting software sharing etc.
- enable more cost-effective use of scarce capital resources by researchers.
TIMETABLE OF EVENTS
- May 4
- Prof Coulouris, QMC, gives R W Witty draft specification of PERQ received from Three Rivers.
- May 8
- F R A Hopgood discusses the PERQ with Bob Sproull of Carnegie-Mellon University, Pittsburgh (at Seillac Workshop on Man-Machine Interaction). Both Carnegie-Mellon and Ron Baecker of University of Toronto feel that the system is a significant advance over anything else on the market and had Letters of Intent in for purchase of systems.
- June 21
- After discussions with Three Rivers, Rutherford order PERQ via British Embassy.
- July 2
- R W Witty meets Dr Thomas of ERCC to talk about their plans for a DCS-based facility. Details of the PERQ are given to ERCC. Dr Thomas suggests that R W Witty should talk tc the research group of Charlie Portman at ICL's West Gortor plant.
- August 8
- F R A Hopgood sees PERQ at SIGGRAPH in Chicago and discuss delivery etc with Rosen of Three Rivers.
- Sept 12
- R W Witty and D A Duce visit West Gorton. Details of the PERQ are given to ICL.
- Sept 14 - Oct 10
- Several discussions with ICL urging them to consider marketing PERQ.
- Oct 8
- Peter Lever of ICL confirms that the company has given approval for Three Rivers to be approached.
- Oct 10
- Rutherford and ICL discuss collaboration over PERQ.
- Oct 16
- Roger Vinniecombe of ICL visits Three Rivers.
- Oct 18
- Rutherford writes to ICL urging them to market PERQ.
- Oct 25
- ICL replies indicating that they hope to negotiate a licencing arrangement with Three Rivers.
- Nov 15
- ICL/RL meeting to discuss long-term collaboration, ICL's plans and the involvement of the West Gorton group.
- Nov 15?
- Utica Plant of ICL visit Three Rivers to consider manufacturing costs etc.
- Nov 27
- Rutherford write to ICL indicating areas of interest to SRC.
- Dec 6
- Meeting ICL, ERCC, Rutherford to discuss ERCC plans and to attempt to stop leaks from Edinburgh of ICL's plans.
- Dec 17
- Meeting ICL, Rutherford to discuss detailed plans for evaluation exercise.
- Meetings between SRC and ICL at various levels to discuss possible collaboration.