September 15, 2008

Database machines and data warehouse appliances – the early days

The idea of specialized hardware for running database management systems has been around for a long time. For example, in the late 1970s, UK national champion computer hardware maker ICL offered a “Content-Addressable Data Store” (or something like that), based on Cullinane’s CODASYL database management system IDMS. EDIT: See corrections in the comment thread. (My PaineWebber colleague Steve Smith had actually sold – or at least attempted to sell – that product, and provided useful support when Cullinane complained to my management about my DBMS market conclusions.) But for all practical purposes, the first two significant “database machine” vendors were Britton-Lee and Teradata. And since Britton-Lee eventually sold out to Teradata (after a brief name change to ShareBase), Teradata is entitled to whatever historical glory accrues from having innovated the database management appliance category.

Britton-Lee, which I first visited in 1983, basically had a very early client/server system, based on a handful of Z80s (Zilog’s Z80 was a technically worthy competitor to Intel’s microprocessor family, back before it was obvious Intel would conquer the world). Bob Epstein, previously head of the Ingres project and later CTO of Sybase, was involved. Britton-Lee also owned an unrelated software vendor named Altergo, as some kind of financial play. (For a company that at various times had both Richard Currier and Vaughan Merlyn working there, Altergo never amounted to much. Of course, Richard was long gone by the Britton-Lee days.) Fine entrepreneurs though they no doubt were, neither Dave Britton nor Geoff Lee really seemed to quite fit the enterprise software or hardware CEO mode, and the whole thing never really achieved ignition.

Teradata may have come more out of the Tandem tradition, via Citibank. (Teradata’s official company history credits CalTech but not Tandem.) I first visited Teradata in 1984 (when they started shipping product), meeting Chief Scientist Phil Neches.and a CEO out of Amdahl in whose office I saw golf tournament trophies for the first time in my life. Cocky young stock analyst that I was, grilled them about their lack of support for standard tools, such as SQL (they were a QUEL shop) or fourth-generation languages. I distinctly remember going to a blackboard or white board (I forget the detail as to which), and holding forth about the features of a competitive 4GL, with Phil taking copious notes. The basic product architecture in those days was a tree of microprocessors (I think Intel 8086s), with each parent node talking to two children, until it got down to the lowest-level nodes that actually talked to disk. (This is what was called Ynet.) The architecture meant that almost exactly half the microprocessors talked to disk, and 50% wasn’t necessarily bad overhead at all.

And that’s most of what I recall about database machines or data warehouse appliances before the mid-1990s, so I’ll stop right there.

Comments

12 Responses to “Database machines and data warehouse appliances – the early days”

  1. Teradata decides to compete head-on as a data warehouse appliance vendor | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on September 15th, 2008 1:00 pm

    […] Teradata, which long avoided the “appliance” term, now says it sells both “data warehouse appliances” and “data mart appliances.” Indeed, it claims to have “invented the original appliance” — which is pretty close to being true.* […]

  2. Andrew McLaren on September 17th, 2008 1:01 am

    CAFS – the ICL product was called CAFS: “Content Addressable File Store”. Yeah, it was one of those early ideas where the structure of the data and the structure of the hardware was closely aligned, like database machines. ICL won the Queen’s Award for Technological Achievement for developing CAFS, sometime in the early 80s – and few other computer firms can claim a Queen’s Award :-)

    IDMS was a popular DB in ICL systems but I don’t think CAFS was in any way directly derivative of IDMS.

  3. Curt Monash on September 17th, 2008 6:41 pm

    Andrew,

    Thanks for the corrections!

    CAM

  4. Jon Forrest on December 12th, 2009 12:23 am

    If I remember correctly, Britton-Lee’s database machine used Z8000s, not Z80s.

  5. Bill Robertson on January 28th, 2010 1:18 am

    “…with each parent node talking to two children, until it got down to the lowest-level nodes that actually talked to disk. (This is what was called Ynet.) The architecture meant that almost exactly half the microprocessors talked to disk…”

    This isn’t quite right. The “tree structure” of the YNet (to the extent that description is correct – it’s arguable) had absolutely nothing to do with which processors could access disks or the ratio of processor types.

    There were two types of processor types: AMPs (Access Module Processors) and IFPs (InterFace Processors). All AMPs had disks and all IFPs were diskless. One could have as few as one IFP with as many AMPs as your checkbook could buy – not that one would likely do that for fault tolerance reasons if nothing else.

    There was a restriction that the number of IFPs couldn’t exceed the number of AMPs (as each IFP needed a “buddy AMP”). However, for a large real world system, anything close to a 1:1 ratio would have likely been irrational anyway.

  6. Gartner 2009/2010 Data Warehouse Magic Quadrant comments | DBMS2 -- DataBase Management System Services on February 10th, 2010 7:29 pm

    […] Gartner correctly says that Teradata has been a data warehouse appliance vendor from the getgo. […]

  7. Roger Reid on February 17th, 2010 5:17 pm

    Following up months later – I can check the Z80XX chip, I have a Britton Lee CPU board back in my office. (We were an early customer).

    I keep it to show young folks what a “patch” is, since BL fixed often fixed bugs by adding a patch wire to the board. That, and then I show them the memory expansion – a full megabyte of core in a 14″ square board.

    Dunno why they call me gramps.

    Roger Reid (who still misses QUEL, but loves 64GB caches)

  8. Neil Robertson on October 8th, 2010 7:25 pm

    I worked for Insac (what Altergo in the US was renamed to) when we were working with Briton Lee. I don’t remember Briton Lee owning Insac, ‘cos I think we were owned by the British Government at that time (1983 +-1). I think we were both owned by the same entity.

    Cheers, Neil.

  9. Flavio Sobral on September 3rd, 2011 8:23 am

    Roger,
    Do you still have the Britton Lee board ? Could you send me a photo ???
    Ragards,
    fsobral@tdwbi.com.br

  10. some technologies become high flyers while others fly like a turkey | StorageIOblog on November 8th, 2011 12:59 am

    […] about the Britton Lee Database machine which today would be referred to as a storage appliance or application optimized storage system […]

  11. Dennis Winz on February 14th, 2013 4:57 pm

    I worked at HDR Systems in 1983 and we wrote software and made hardware to convert SQL to QUEL and format the output all on the fly. Yes B-L used the Z8001 and we used the Z8002 (variations
    on a theme). We sold the first of those to the Air Force Data Center at the Pentagon and another to the Department of the Navy. We also made a pitch to sell one to Chemical Bank in NYC but not sure of the result of that. Remember meeting with Britton and Lee at dinner in Los Gatos one evening. We at HDR Systems had coozied up to them and we were talking about them selling our systems jointly.

  12. some technologies become high flyers while others fly like a turkey | StorageIOblog on August 24th, 2013 10:10 am

    […] whom they put out to pasture, on the technology front, anybody remember AutoRAID?How about the Britton Lee Database machine which today would be referred to as a storage appliance or application optimized storage system […]

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