Saturday, August 11, 2012

The PowerPC on Mars

Earlier this week I had a breakfast meeting with a dozen or so of my former IBM colleagues. We’re a group of mostly retired engineers, programmers, and managers from IBM Printing Systems Division that I’ve known and worked with for a dozen years or so. It was a great time meeting up with all these old friends and telling each other war stories.

I was sitting next to a guy who was one of the top software troubleshooters in the company. When a customer had a serious software issue, he was always the one we would turn to for help. He solved more technical problems during my tenure as the chief quality engineer than I can count, and he was always the guy I would call to get a good understanding of what we were doing about a customer problem.

He is no longer with Ricoh, the company that bought Printing Systems from IBM. Now he’s a consultant with a computer support company. He said that during the interview they asked him if he had any experience with an IBM 43P Server. Now the 43P, or more properly the IBM RS/6000 43P Model 150 was a small and inexpensive (relatively speaking) RISC box. That is, a computer that ran the excellent IBM AIX version of UNIX. It was modeled on an IBM PC basic design and had a PC type bus and used several, relatively inexpensive attachment cards, but used the IBM PowerPC processor rather than the Intel processor in IBM PCs.

The marketing concept behind the 43P was to provide an entry level computer for organizations that needed an IBM UNIX based system, but didn’t need the large size or data capacity of a large and expensive IBM server.

Of course my friend was experienced with the 43P as they were used as internal servers in our medium sized printers. All of our larger printers had IBM servers inside doing all the print, printer, and job control functions. I had a test lab full of 43Ps since they provided inexpensive AIX servers for testing when we didn’t need large data capacity or capability. We had a few large servers to duplicate large data loads and to simulate customer environments, but the 43P was very useful for testing basic functions such as user interface and basic operation.

All these IBM RISC boxes ran the IBM PowerPC processor. Prior to working in Printing Systems, most of my programming experience was with Intel processors. My very first experience was with the Motorola 6800 processor, specifically the 6809. So I had worked with a variety of different processors.

Around 1990, Apple, IBM, and Motorola formed a consortium and partnership to develop and manufacture the PowerPC. Apple converted their computer designs from Motorola to the PowerPC for several years. Ultimately they switched again to the Intel chip set, primarily because of the better support for portable computers that Intel provided – lower power consumption and lower heat production.

The PowerPC is still used in many IBM computer designs from relatively small Linux and AIX computers to the largest mainframes. I recall a discussion with my good friend from high school, John Barr, about the PowerPC vs. the Motorola designs. He was a top engineer and executive at Motorola. He was not a fan the PowerPC and described several design issues with the PowerPC and the fact that new designs often changed critical interface and programming models. He preferred the design of the Motorola 68000.

I was never an expert on microprocessors, and I was more a customer of processors and computers than a designer of the actual architecture and design of computers. When you write programs in a high level language such as C++ or Java, the actual processor is not very critical. System designers, on the other hand, are very involved with the specific processor design. So I don’t know if John was right on not.

As an IBMer I was pretty proud when IBM announced that the Xbox 360, Nintendo Wii, and the Sony Playstation would all use the IBM PowerPC. As a reward to the engineers in Burlington, VT, the site where the PowerPC was developed, everyone was given an Xbox 360. That's cool. Seemed that stogy old IBM was pretty “cool” providing the heart and soul of game machines. Pretty cool all right.

But Intel has continued to keep its edge at the top of the microprocessor business and the latest versions from Intel are some of the most powerful and best processors ever created. I’m typing this on a MacBook Pro powered by an Intel i7. Multicore processing for the masses.

Tonight I read some good news. The PowerPC is on Mars. The Curiosity rover which made a spectacular landing on Mars this week is run by a PowerPC RAD750. The RAD750 is a radiation-hardened, single board computer manufactured by BAE Systems Electronic Solutions. The RAD750 is based on the IBM PowerPC 750. The computer was released in 2001 and has been in space since 2005.

The chip is engineered to be virtually impervious to high-energy cosmic rays that would quickly cripple my laptop computer. The RAD750s can tolerate a lifetime dosage that are up to a million times more extreme than those considered fatal for a human being. As a result, over a 15-year period, the RAD750 chips aboard Curiosity would not be expected to suffer more than one external event requiring intervention from Earth.

So this is pretty neat. First the PowerPC is used in state-of-the-art game systems. And now it’s on Mars. Pretty neat all right. Let’s see Intel match that.

By the way, if you want to buy an RAD750, they’re $200,000 and come with a 200 Megahertz clock and 2 GB of solid-state memory. That means an iPhone is about ten times faster and has about sixteen times as much memory. But then my iPhone wouldn’t last long on Mars, and Curiosity should be easily outlast my two year contract with AT&T.


  1. What font are you using? I love it. Keep up the good work.

    IT support Bedford

    1. The font is the standard BlogSpot Arial font.

      How it appears on your computer depends more on the font set installed on your system.

      This is the HTML command I use:

      span style="font-family: Arial, Helvetica, sans-serif;"

      If your computer has "Arial," then that's what you will see Otherwise it uses the "Helvetica" font, which is really the same thing. Finally, if all else fails, you just get a simple sans serif font.

      On rare occasions, I may use a "Times Roman" font for some text for emphasis or to set the text off from the rest of the blog.

      I use the BlogSpot editor for input, using the "HTML" mode. There is also a "Compose" mode that is a little bit more of a word processor. I work on a Mac and use Pages to compose my blogs and then copy and paste into BlogSpot.

      I use several "canned" HTML tags, and this is what I've been using the last several years. Early in my blogging I tried other things, and -- sometimes -- I go back and re-edit old blogs to clean up the text, fonts, and style.