Novotel, Hammersmith

17 February 1987

The Sequent Lectures

Along with several thousand other punters I received an invitation to the first series of "Sequent Lectures" among the usual spring tide of junk mail; as did several hundred others, I decided it might be worth a visit, since it was free and featured most of the dbms I know and love. The event was held in the unspeakably awful Novotel, which is largely composed of multi storey car park, and had three parts. In part one, an earnest American salesman explained very slowly why Sequent machines are so fast (and reliable and wonderful and cheap). This I found mildly informative, never having paid the company much attention before; the parallel architecture (lots of stripped down VAXes hanging off a superfast bus) sounds remarkably sensible, providing that you can take advantage of it. To do this properly, however, you clearly need so pretty smart programmers. My jargon detector popped its dial on the phrase "We have architected that [i.e. Oracle's use of background processes] on the Sequent" and failed to function for the rest of the morning.

Part two came after coffee and comprised three two-stage sessions held in parallel (another case of Sequent architecting). These were supposed to be for Sequent's favourite software vendors to endorse the message by explaining how they'd taken advantage of the wonderful box in their implementations: predictably they turned out to be fairly low key sales pitches with only token gestures in this direction. Products featured were Ingres, Oracle, Informix, Unify and The Office Smith. I missed all of Unify (it's a supposedly high performance TP-type system hosted under UNIX), Oracle (heard it all before) and also all of the technical seminar on parallel programming (from which however I did steal a programming guide). The Ingres speaker seemed proudest about Ingres' Visual Programming (Trademark) and its "state of the art" query optimiser. It exploits the Sequent architecture by running front and back end processes on different processors, as does Oracle, I assume. The Informix speaker was proudest about their 4GL; he did however announce the new Informix-TURBO which can be used to beef up multi-user large scale UNIX implementations (not however noticeably using parallel programming techniques) amd also DATASHEET ADD-OM with which you can make your Informix-SQL database look just like Lotus 1-2-3. There's progress. Office Smith turns out to be fairly drab hierarchic text indexing system for UNIX boxes only. The speaker clearly felt rather defensive about this ("relational is just a small subset of database technology") and rightly so. It uses B-trees and compresses index terms rather like those speed-writing adverts (KN Y RD THS?); one thing in its favour is that it was designed to be bilingual, emanating as it does from the Canadian Government.

The main event of the day was Dr Rob Wilmott's Vision of the Future, an inspirational little number, featuring lots of graphs showing sharply divergent lines with labels such as "Shipped MIPs", "Price/Performance Learning Curve" (and only 3 spelling mistakes) etc etc. Fortunately for the innumerate, the lessons Dr Wilmott wished us to take home were not too difficult: (1) lots of small machines is better value for money than one biggie (2) progress is being impeded by fuddy-duddy conservatism and the deadweight of current software investment (3) OSI standards are a Good Thing, and are Happening. Likewise, UNIX, C etc. These messages were all dressed up rather fetchingly with the usual sort of stuff about the imminent collapse of the British non-manufacturing industry and the appalling levels of ignorance in British management. To fill the latter gap, our Rob has -surprise- started a new management consultancy called OASIS which will help you "go multi-vendor" and transform your software productivity before the astonished eyes of the competition breathing down your neck. Question time provoked an unexpected smear on government collaborative ventures, and (with reference to whether IBM would ever get involved in parallel architectures), quite the best mixed metaphor of 1987, so far, viz "Once the benchmarks are on the table, you will see all Hell break loose".

A nominal lunch was provided, after which I trekked across London to visit the British Library's Research & Development Division, deep in the heart of Soho. It is possible that they would be willing to fund a one year research post here to assess the actual and potential uses of machine readable texts, which would also help keep the Text Archive on its feet. I spoke to Terry Cannon, who was encouraging.