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Contributing Writer

Death Of An Industry Giant

Feb 08, 20113 mins
Cisco SystemsComputersComputers and Peripherals

Modern computing owes a debt of gratitude to Ken Olsen and DEC

By now you’ve read that Ken Olsen, founder of Digital Equipment Corporation, died this weekend at the age of 84. Lots of people will chronicle Olsen’s life and career: MIT, Lincoln labs, DEC, the PDP-1, VAX, etc. I’m sure a lot will be written about how Digital missed the PC market, how the company lost its way in the early 1990s, and about Olsen’s famous “snake oil” speeches. Most of these things are true or at least based on facts, but there are a few things about Olsen (and Digital) that shouldn’t be forgotten:1. When Digital Equipment was founded in 1957, the only computer company that really mattered was IBM. Rather than control the system software like IBM did, Digital took a different approach, letting customers tinker with its systems, working with customers on technical improvements, and then adding them to new releases. In this way, Digital really pioneered the whole “geek culture” that is still with us today.2. Olsen fought against open systems in the 1980s and 1990s believing that he could deliver a better product by controling all of the APIs and system integration. This was true, VAX clusters, a combination of systems, storage, networking, interconnects, and system software were way ahead of their time. Olsen lost this market battle even though he was completely right. Fast forward to 2010. At last year’s Oracle Open World, Oracle boasted about “hardware, software, together.” Ironically, Oracle was one of the company’s waving the open systems flag against Digital. 3. Current folklore tends to mock the Olsen/Digital “matrix management” model as too cumbersome and slow. Yes, this lead to some bad market decisions but competing technology groups really pushed on innovation. DEC didn’t always capitalize on new products but the industry — and the world — eventually did.4. Many people say that Olsen should have brought in real business guys and stepped aside. In reality, he did. Lots of top DEC managers came from IBM, Olivetti, and other big firms. Rather than improve Digital, they brought in a sense of entitlement or a lack of real technical customer knowledge. This unfortunately was the beginning of the end.It’s hard to underestimate the contributions of Olsen, Digital Equipment, and the people who worked there; I haven’t even mentioned networking, VMS, databases, systems management, etc. but they were all there as well. Olsen should be remembered for his unbelievable vision and how he shook the industy from 1957 through the late 1980s. This man was truly a founding father of the modern information technology.

Contributing Writer

Jon Oltsik is a distinguished analyst, fellow, and the founder of the ESG’s cybersecurity service. With over 35 years of technology industry experience, Jon is widely recognized as an expert in all aspects of cybersecurity and is often called upon to help customers understand a CISO's perspective and strategies. Jon focuses on areas such as cyber-risk management, security operations, and all things related to CISOs.

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