Tom West of 'Soul of a New Machine' dead at 71

West was the star of perhaps the best book ever written about project development. He also helped lead one of the key companies of the minicomputer, and then Unix, eras.

Gordon Haff
Gordon Haff is Red Hat's cloud evangelist although the opinions expressed here are strictly his own. He's focused on enterprise IT, especially cloud computing. However, Gordon writes about a wide range of topics whether they relate to the way too many hours he spends traveling or his longtime interest in photography.
Gordon Haff
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Tracy Kidder's 1982 Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of book-length reportage, "The Soul of a New Machine," is perhaps the best narrative of a technology-development project ever written. It's up there with "The Mythical Man Month" and "Showstopper." And the hero of that book was Tom West. The pages open with Tom at the helm of a sailboat in a storm. "In the glow of the running lights, most of the crew looked like refugees, huddled, wearing blank faces. Among them, Tom West appeared as a thin figure under a watch cap, in nearly constant motion."

Tom West uniforum.org

Tom West, 71, died Thursday at his home in Westport, Mass., yet another mark of the passing of the minicomputer era, so important to the way the computer era has evolved--and, indeed, how Massachusetts evolved as part of the computer industry.

I'm certainly not impartial here. My first computer industry job was with West's employer, Data General, as product manager of the MV/7800, a 32-bit minicomputer that trailed the "Eagle," the MV/8000 32-bit minicomputer that was the subject of "The Book" (as Kidder's work was eventually called around DG). The MV/8000 was essentially DG's answer to Digital Equipment Corp.'s VAX, which had leapfrogged some major DG advancements in 16-bit minis. I would product manage many DG systems over the years.

Tom would, much later, "borrow" me to be part of an effort to roll out modular Unix Non-Uniform-Memory-Access servers. The concept would ultimately become standard practice. But DG's ability to profit from it would be hamstrung by the lack of a standardized Unix operating system in the years before Linux matured. (SCO's abortive efforts around Datacenter-quality Unix would be part of the problem.) That said, NUMA servers would be, in many ways, the last hurrah of DG's AViiON server division.

West did more than build minicomputers and advance them to Unix servers though, however complicated and nonobvious a process it may have seemed at the time.

In the late 1990s, while he was also orchestrating the shift from minicomputers to Unix, Tom was setting up a group to investigative projects that could take advantage of the mainstream Internet. The idea that a group of people within a corporation could do their own thing on their credit cards was a novel concept at the time. ThinLiine, which encompassed home-networking territory eventually tackled by the likes of Linksys, turned out to be ahead of its time.

In terms of charting DG's ultimate path, it was CLARiiON that made the most difference. West pushed the new-fangled idea of RAID--Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks. The idea was that you could design things so that an individual disk could fail but it wouldn't much matter. West's CLARiiON concept commercialized this idea, brought it to market in a way that wasn't tied to DG servers, and ultimately made a failing server company attractive as an acquisition target to EMC. Arguably, the more midrange approach espoused by CLARiiON saved EMC during the Internet meltdown relative to the uber-high-end approach taken by traditional EMC Symmetrix.

It's easy to be dismissive of the whole Route 128 era of computer tech. Steven Levy's "Hackers" largely is. But I'll argue--and not just because I've worked for, or known, many of them--that the likes of Tom West, Ken Olsen, Ed DeCastro, and many others have ultimately shaped much of where we are today.