Data Management: an ICL User Group Conference

Cavendish Hotel,Eastbourne.

19-21 November 1980

The keynote of these proceedings was ICL Hospitality, a curious commodity which was supplied in various forms and large quantities at regular intervals. Forms in which ICL Hospitality is supplied include psychedelic slide shows, online demonstrations and outbursts of fervent patriotism, but it usually comes in a bottle. The patriotism was largely concentrated in my first encounter with Dr Peter Aylett who, perhaps feeling rather tired and emotional after paying for so much ICL Hospitality, embraced me warmly before the proceedings began and then tore my ear off for having mentioned some disquiet with the current serviceability of our 2980. This to the point of alarming an innocent bystander from RACAL.

The next day's presentations might be divided into three categories: polemic (Aylett, Ellis), apologetic (the three user presentations) and summary (the rest). Of the user presentations (as one delegate rather sharply pointed out), one only used data management techniques because of deficiencies in VME/B (Murphy), one had a user population most of whom had no data to manage (Burnard) and the other had written their own DBMS and was now regretting it (Philbrick) . Murphy's account of the problems of managing the literally thousands of megabytes of data pouring from the monitoring devices used in fusion experiments at Culham, had a familiar ring to it. IDMSX is used to keep track of their file usage and archiving facilities, while they plan to use STATUS to analyse the free format documentation about the various experiments which accumulates at roughly the same rate as the data. Apart from Liverpool, Oxford was the only university site represented; my own presentation therefore concentrated on the peculiarities of the University Computing Environment, concerning which I waxed so eloquent that I had just about reached the topic of data management when the chairman started waving blue cards at me. Sun Life Assurance's experience having written their own DBMS confirmed the popular wisdom - it had taken them 5 man years or so to replace an existing conventional system, and the replacement was already inadequate.

ICL speakers on this first day were perhaps forgiveably rather desultory in their presenta tions of DDS, TPMS, IDMS, PDS and the wholesome nature of data management. Harry Ellis explained how proper use of the products would keep our respective companies' names out of the papers; Richard Barker rushed through the recovery and security aspects of IDMS; Yvette Ascher managed to summarise the facilities of DDS, TPMS and IDMS in a record-breaking 45 minutes and Jackie Sansom did her best to make sense of PDS without once mentioning the word 'relational'. Apart from PDS itself (concerning which I made a lot of interested noises in what I hope were the right places), the chief new departure I noted was a greater stress on the integration of the products, typified by the merging of TP with IDMS now known as TPMS, and in the new acrobuzz IPA. This has nothing to do with pale ale but is short for INFORMATION PROCESSING ARCHITECTURE. Unlike most machine architectures, this is really a question of how you feel about what you're doing. If you see a computer system dynamically as information flowing between nodes (e,g. terminals, databases, processors) of comparatively less intrinsic interest, then you are into IPA; if however you see it just as a machine you are trying to kick into life to do something for you (and never mind the rest of the world), then you are probably not. The definition is however mine and may well be quite wrong.

In the evening ICL Hospitality took the shape of an excellent dinner (starring beef Wellington) followed by speeches of increasing incoherence and a general rush for the bar. I apologised to various ICL speakers for having run out of time before getting round to saying just how marvellous the 2% of our users who use IDMS think it is. Large amounts of malt whisky fuelled further discussions with assorted ICL directors and Jim Alty long into the night, the exact nature of which eludes me; data management was not excluded from them, but the younger generation, Liverpool football club and L. Van Beethoven also made guest appearances.

Next morning, at 9 sharp, in body if not spirit, we reconvened for the unacceptable face of ICL Hospitality in the form of a half hour long slideshow, complete with music, special effects and a commentator who would have been more persuasive selling soap. It resembled nothing so much as an animated glossy brochure from which, had I been more awake, a fine bag of trophies for pseuds corner might have been gathered. Its gist was that ICL Computers (information Processors, sorry) will save you money, increase productivity and make you irresistible to the opposite sex. The company's latest offerings (2956 and 2966) slotted sharply into some unexplained scale of competitiveness next to IBM's most recent offering and on them (after DME and VME) you could now have CME which could be both, or either. A delegate later proposed the Friendly User Machine Environment (FUME) as the obvious next development.

Fortunately the remaining ICL presentations were of quite a different nature. Hamish Carmichael gave an impressively thorough and technically detailed account of CAPS which, by moving intelligence from the main frame to a file access component (a 'back end processor'), allows quite staggering improvements in throughput when large volumes of loosely organised data are to be searched. ICL's own personnel records are now held on a CAFS-based system as a slightly modified IMS database; the heretical implication that IMS storage structures could actually be improved upon was neither stressed nor shirked. Bob Gifford's presentation of ICL's experimentation with Viewdata was also quite impressive, if only because it explained just what is going on during those odd pauses when one phones SMC about a bug. At present Viewdata access to the Known Errors Database is only available "in house" or to some selected foreign sites; several delegates were sufficiently impressed by its speed to request that it be provided on a Public viewdata service. Finally, Jim Alty gave a stirring summary of why data management was a Good Thing and laid into various popular fictions about it with enviable assurance. He also asserted that Liverpool currently supported 26 database applications, but later reduced the figure somewhat.

Apart from confirmation of every suspicion that OUCS is a very untypical VME/B user and from an intriguing insight into how the rest of the world does things, it cannot honestly be said that my attendance at this gathering was of much direct benefit to the Service. It was however almost entirely funded by ICL (gratitude for which is hereby expressed) and something might just come of my noises about PDS. And maybe universities have a duty to remind the rest of the world about what they are up to while it is busy making money, saluting the flag and making programmers redundant.