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Informatics provided support for the Alvey programme since its inception.
As the various Directors turned to Informatics for extra effort different functions emerged and evolved over the years in the areas of IKBS, SE and MMI. The scope of these activities eventually included:
- Programme Management and Support. This was direct in the case of Software Engineering, with Informatics staff occupying many of the posts in that area, and more indirect in IKBS where Informatics took on several specific functions. Some staff were seconded into the Directorate for more direct involvement in managing the IKBS programme.
- Co-ordination. This included organising workshops and conferences, providing administrative and secretarial support for Clubs (including Speech, Vision, Architectures, Knowledge Based Systems, Logic Programming and HI), SIGs (eg SIGAI) and Advisory Groups on IKBS and Formal Methods, and membership of committees and advisory bodies such as the ACARD working group on software.
- Awareness. This included running the SE, IKBS and MMI mailshots, setting up a Who's Who in MMI, a videotape library and an on-line version of the AI Tools Catalogue.
- Contracts. Numerous contracts were let and monitored for central purchasing and maintenance of SUNs, ICL Series 39, HLH Orions and Whitechapels; software development and support contracts (Prolog support, Prolog benchmarks, Poplog development and support, Lisp support and so on); and user support (eg GEC Series 63).
- Monitoring and Deliverables. Informatics was responsible for selecting and employing monitoring officers, for monitoring projects in many areas, and collecting and disseminating deliverables. In fact, the monitoring system was originally devised by Informatics staff.
- Technical Support for the Community
- Academic Computing Infrastructure. This was eventually based on four different Unix machines - SUN 2/3, GEC Series 63, Systime Vax 8750 and UTS on the IBM 3081 and Atlas 10 mainframes. Tasks included endeavouring to provide similar functions on four different versions of Unix and providing local and wide area communications. One of the main reasons for putting the GEC Series 63's into selected Universities was to speed-up provision of the software needed to make the machine a commercial success and a useful tool for the entire programme. The Vaxes were initially bought only for those sites with GEC's which were responsible for porting software from Berkeley Unix. Progress was disappointingly slow and eventually overtaken by the upsurge of workstations. The machines were, in fact, becoming a valuable resource by the end of the project - but too late. Alvey Mail eventually became part of this project and was the only part directly to benefit the industrial community; the programme's regulations meant that more direct support for industry could not be provided.
- Site Managers. Contracts were let to provide site managers at the sites with GEC Series 63 - Cambridge, ERCC, Edinburgh, Essex, Imperial College, Newcastle, Oxford, Sussex and UMIST. The site managers' jobs eventually grew to include support of all Alvey users at their site.
- Pump priming. Resources were made available to supply hardware and software for evaluation and exploration of ideas prior to projects being funded.
- Other tasks. The staff in post were a valuable resource which could be called on to carry out any tasks which arose suddenly and were needed urgently. For example, a survey was carried out of the equipment (hardware and software) being used on Alvey projects.
In many respects the achievements of this kind of work were invisible: meetings happen, minutes appear, invoices are paid, mailshots arrive, contracts run and so on. They only became visible when something failed. However, the development work undertaken by Informatics for delivery to the Alvey community did led to visible results; some of the highlights are given below.
- ML/LCF Effort was made available to assist Edinburgh define a standard form of the functional language ML - this became Standard ML (SML). The ML/LCF package was converted into SML at RAL and made available to the Alvey community. The original implementation was on a Vax; it was subsequently ported to SUN, UTS and Pyramid. A code optimiser was then built which produced a tenfold increase in performance.
- FORSITE Project The FORSITE project requested Informatics to build them a parser for the specification language Z, which generated SML output code. The staff to build this parser were seconded to PRG Oxford for this task. The result was initially used by FORSITE but was later more widely applicable.
- The Alvey Prolog Benchmarks SIGAI believed that there was a need to improve upon the Portland State University Prolog benchmarks, which had been used to evaluate the performance of various Prologs . A contract was placed with Imperial Software Technology to produce the Alvey Prolog Benchmarks. Cambridge were asked to analyse both existing benchmarks and the new set, and the new set was run with various prologs on various machines. The software, the results and the Cambridge report were made available on request.
- Concurrency Workbench Edinburgh's Laboratory for the Foundations of Computer Science built a set of tools written in SML - the Calculus of Communicating Systems _ but were aware that a proper user-interface was needed if the tools were to be used by non-expert users. A joint development project between the SE and HCI teams in Informatics was initiated which will result in a generalised user interface toolkit for SML.
- Window Managers The Alvey directorate asked Informatics to organise a workshop on Window Management in the spring of 1985. The results were published as a book which was typeset at RAL. The book ended with a recommended work programme. Eventually it was agreed that an infrastructure project would be undertaken at RAL to define a low level interface between graphical applications and the window manager the Client Server Interface (CSI). Once defined it was implemented on a number of workstations, following discussions with manufacturers. A RAL-developed toolkit (WW) was built on top of it. The toolkit was used to build several portable demonstrators, including the editor SPY, and by the University of Kent for a collection of Unix utilities such as a file comparator and a directory/file browser. It was also used for a major demonstration at the UMIST Alvey exhibition.
- ISO Communications GEC implemented low level ISO connectionless protocols (LLC1) for their Ethernet connection. ERCC received infrastructure funding to build the York version of JANET's Coloured Books code over ISO Transport Class 4. Informatics then ported this code onto a Vax (running Berkeley Unix 4.2) and UTS (Unix Version 7). GEC eventually agreed to provide the Arpanet protocol set (tcp/ip) on the Series 63. ERCC were then contracted to port SUN's Network File System over both ISO and Arpa protocols. Apart from the direct benefits to the infrastructure this gave ERCC, Informatics and the users an early awareness of the strengths and weakness of the OSI standards.