Linux As An Early Workstation

earlylinuxworkstationsLinux was a forerunner of modern PC workstations.  Here is a great excerpt from an article written in 1996 – it’s always interesting to take a walk down memory lane when it comes to computers, especially because things change so quickly.

“Initially PCs and workstations represented entirely independent operating points in the price-performance spectrum. PC vendors emphasized low customer price at the expense of performance, capacity, and functionality.

Workstations could easily cost five to ten times as much but provided a rich user graphical user interface-based environment with sufficient performance to engage in meaningful computation. PCs were oriented to turnkey, independent software vendor (ISV) applications, while workstations, in contrast, incorporated a full applications programming interface, usually based on Unix. PC processors, initially 16-bit architectures, were relatively slow and combined with small main memory and limited secondary storage.

Workstations, on the other hand, were almost exclusively 32-bit architectures with at least 8MB of memory and built-in hard drives. While the early PC operating, systems generally were simple, supporting one program at a time, workstations mining Unix were full virtual memory multitasking systems from the beginning.

Today, the majority of both PCs and workstations are based on 32-bit microprocessor architectures. Workstation clock speeds range from more than 60MHZ to more than of 200MHZ with PC clock speeds falling about halfway between. In fact, PC microprocessor manufacturing technology, is comparable to that employed for workstation processor fabrication with equivalent lithographic size and transistor count. PCs and workstations now vise the same main memory modules, although workstations tend to have substantially, more.

Two of the most remarkable trends are in the areas of disk drives and backplanes. Commodity hard drives for PCs have a capacity of 1.6GB at a cost below $300, a price that continues to drop. In backplane technologies used to connect the subsystems of a PC or workstation together, the current generation PC bus, peripheral component interface (PCI), not only performs as well as many of its workstation counterparts, it is being adopted by many workstation vendors as a common interface standard. For graphics — an area in which workstations excel — major advances have been made on the commodity front as well. The consumer video game market is during graphic technology development. While the characteristics of the current high-end workstations are superior to contemporary PCs, the low end of the workstation product line is being squeezed by the capabilities and low cost of PCs.

In spite of the closing gap of PC and workstation hardware, a separation between the two classes of machines would continue to exist if the software environments remained independent. But two trends in software have all but eliminated this distinction as well. The most widely used operating system, which has been the hallmark of PCs for many years, provides a stable target for ISV application development and is evolving to incorporate many of the characteristics of the workstation environments. Perhaps more importantly, various versions of Unix, both commercial and public domain, have been developed for PC hardware platforms providing robust and industrial-grade capabilities once found only on workstations. Linux is one of the most widely distributed examples, providing complete X-window interfaces and all programming tools routinely available on workstations.

If anything, the convergence of software has outpaced that of hardware between PCs and workstations. Already, PCs running the Linux operating system are showing up on graduate students’ desks around the country as a low-cost alternative to once-conventional workstations.”

Sterling, Thomas. “The scientific workstation of the future may be a pile of PCs.” Communications of the ACM Sept. 1996: 11+.