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MINICOMPUTERS: WHAT IS THE CHOICE? by CHARLES L. BIGGS/Director, Management Services, Cleveland and EVAN G. BIRKS/P.S. Ross & Partners, Toronto What is the most cost-effective approach to data processing? Many business managers find there is no clear-cut answer to this question. The variety of equipment available to match their data processing and communications needs, and its continually improving price/performance ratios, have made the options available to them almost infinite. As a result, some basic management questions about computers are back on the drawing board. Should we have a large computer or several small computers? Should we have centralized computers or decentralized computers? The most recent and aggressive sales barrage has come from minicomputer advocates, who assert that their systems will: • Offer twice the capacity at prices significantly less than those of large systems; • Provide the level of service needed by a smaller user, when the data processing department is too busy with its big systems; • Offer on-site services to user departments who must meet tight work schedules; • Do the job at half the price charged by the corporate service bureau; • Increase efficiency by distributing the processing throughout the data communications network. What Is a Minicomputer? The typical minicomputer is defined technically as a digital processor with integrated semiconductor circuits, a 16-bit word length, 4,096 to 32,768 words of magnetic core or semiconductor storage, and fast memory cycle times of 0.8 to 1.5 microseconds; other word lengths, sizes, and speeds also are available. The minicomputer is small in size and usually weighs less than 50 lbs. It utilizes standard 115 volt power, and reportedly needs no special environment. While it is difficult to get precise agreement on the definition of a minicomputer, it is generally agreed that it is a computer whose processor,or"main frame," is available at a purchase price ranging from $10,000to $30,000, and that it provides index registers, multi-level indirect addressing, and flexible input/output capabilities which may be enhanced by one or more direct memory access channels. Perhaps of greatest significance is its modularity, which allows its assembly in an infinite variety of configurations. A good deal of the debate over defining a minicomputer is prompted by the overlapping characteristics of minicomputers, microcomputers, and midicomputers. (The accompanying table shows some characteristics of the processors of these three types of computers—see page 15.) The major weaknesses of minicomputers occur in the areas of (1) hardware limitations, (2) software difficulties, and (3) lack of vendor support. Most of the hardware limitations can be resolved with such extra cost options as: additional main storage, parity checking, storage protection, hardware multiply/divide instruction, a real-time clock, power-failure protection, and direct memory access channels. The software difficulties relate to a lack of sophisticated, generalized routines (from disk file access modules to utilities to programming aids), the additional programming required due to the minicomputers' short word lengths, their sometimes limited storage capacity, and the single-purpose orientation of their operating systems. This may result in a relatively high cost for program development. Underlying the lack of vendor support is the fact that the cost of providing the type of support associated with larger systems may be more today than the cost of the computer hardware itself. Minicomputer manufacturers therefore have directed their primary sales efforts toward original equipment customers, including programming firms and contract systems houses, treating them essentially as wholesalers or branch offices. The History of the Minicomputer The minicomputer industry, which is just over 15 years old, has grown rapidly since the mid 1960s. Total computer sales currently exceed $14 billion annually, and the U.S. Department of Commerce estimates that sales by the 70 minicomputer manufacturers are approximately 10 percent of this market. Behind the growth in the minicomputer industry are a number of fundamental factors: —Technological innovations in LSI (large-scale integrated) circuits, which have resulted in dramatic price/performance improvements; —Specialized software products, which are uniquely suited to minicomputer applications; —Very competitive pricing among minicomputer vendors; —An increasing emphasis on distributed processing, a subject discussed below. Minicomputer manufacturers deal with three major markets. The first is original equipment manufacturers. A high proportion of minicomputers' sales are being made for incorporation into OEM products, such as machine tools, process control units, or data entry devices. This is an extremely competitive market where the specifications call for acceptable performance at minimum cost. It also is a very volatile market and was responsible for most of the minicomputer growth during the industry's first decade. The second market, which has emerged in the 1970s, is comprised of sophisticated end-users of minicomputers. 11
Minicomputers: What is the choice?
Biggs, Charles L.
Birks, Evan G.
Touche Ross. Cleveland Office
Touche Ross. Toronto Office
|Abstract||Illustration not included in Web version|
Tempo, Vol. 23, no. 2 (1977), p. 11-15
|Source||Originally published by: Touche Ross, & Co.|
|Rights||Copyright and permission to republish held by: Deloitte|
|Format||PDF page image with corrected OCR scanned at 400 dpi|
|Collection||Deloitte Digital Collection|
|Digital Publisher||University of Mississippi Library. Accounting Collection|