Thursday, 15 December 2011

My Guru has gone.

I learned of the death about two months ago of someone who I once met, if only fleetingly. Yet this person played a huge part in my working life. Computer historian Paul Ceruzzi said after his death: "Dennis Ritchie was under the radar. His name was not a household name at all, but... if you had a microscope and could look in a computer, you'd see his work everywhere inside."

This understated giant of the IT world wrote in his biography for Bell Labs. “My undergraduate experience convinced me that I was not smart enough to be a physicist and that computers were quite neat. My graduate school experience convinced me that I was not smart enough to be an expert in the theory of algorithms and also that I liked procedural languages better than functional ones.”

His passing made me think about the role that Dennis Ritchie played in the IT revolution and in highlighting how things have changed over time. Nothing more so than in computing and access to information.

I worked for over thirty years in Information Technology. In the early days, punched cards, punched tape and dot matrix printer were our input, output and storage devices. Today that would equate to a keyboard, a monitor and a floppy disk.

You have to remember that we were always years behind the evolving technology that was happening in North America. I can remember the days when we would boot up a mainframe by placing a row of switches into certain positions and pressing a button to execute the command. Direct input machine code was the only language of choice.

As things evolved punched tape and punched cards were replaced by a keyboard terminal. Big disk storage devices were the size of a dustbin lid and held a few hundred megabytes. Core memory less than a few kilobytes. The mainframe I worked with was located in a silo and consisted of the first three floors of a large air conditioned building.

I remember using assembler language before the "easier" languages arrived such as Fortran, Lisp, Cobol and Pascal. But I was never comfortable until the arrival of "C" as developed by Dennis Ritchie. The highlight of my career in IT was meeting Dennis Ritchie some years later at a conference in London where Dennis did a presentation about the development of "Plan 9" at Bell Labs.

But most memorable for me was having a conversation with Dennis during the conference dinner about the future of programing languages and the Unix operating system. We shared the table with Brian Kernighan and Andrew Tanenbaum all three were my gods. Kernighan's name became widely known through co-authorship of the first book on the C programming language with Dennis Ritchie. Kernighan to his credit has said that he had no part in the design of the C language "it's entirely Dennis Ritchie's work". Tanenbaum for his book Computer Networks which is a bible for all students of computer networking. He is also famous for the quotes "The nice thing about standards is that you have so many to choose from." and "Never underestimate the bandwidth of a station wagon full of tapes hurtling down the highway." You have to be a geek!

As we phased out the big mainframes and down sized to mini systems (PDP-7 and later PDP-11) that occupied only a single floor. We had no idea what the future held in store. Then the first of the IBM Personal Computers with the DOS operating system arrived. I remember that one was deposited on my desk and I thought of it as being a toy. In todays terms it was the start of the modern era of computing. The problem was that we did not recognise it.

We standardised on the Unix operating system and in particular using the "C" programing language. The hardware was now downsized once again, This time only filling a single room which was part of the machine room complex for all the different systems that filled the ground floor of a small building. A bit later, we started to use SUN Microsystems hardware that would fit quite comfortably under your desk.

In the late 90's I studied for my MSc in Networked Information Engineering. Later, the direction of my work was to change into networking and distributed systems. For a while I worked on a special project based around informatics and distance learning. Then promptly changed my career once again and suffered total and complete bordom and indifference, until I and my employer agreed that I should retire earlier this year.

RIP Dennis.


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