Saturday, 21 December 2013

A Computer for Christmas

I wrote this story nearly 30 years ago, so the techology has moved on since then - but not by much. Although you can buy four terabyte hard drives now.

A Computer for Christmas

Sir Sangrathta and Mrs Claus we having a terrible row again.  "You're
always down at the factory", she said.  "Even the reindeer see more of
you than I do".  "I can't help that", said Sir Sangrathta, "I have a
very important job to do, and you know what happens if it doesn't get

Both of them fell silent at the appalling thought of a failure to
deliver the merchandise on time, to the right customers.  Even worse
than the impact on the customers, would be the impact on the
customers' parents, driven close to insanity by this failure.

"There are so many of them these days", complained Sangrathta, "and
they all want so much, and it's all so complicated." "You ought to get
a computer", said Mrs Claus.  "I've got enough toys already", he
replied.  "No, I mean a proper one, a business machine."

I was sitting at home, trying to write a device driver for a quarter
inch tape drive, when some appalling noises came from the roof.  The
noises got louder, and started coming from the wall, and then
suddenly, in my fireplace, there sat a bearded, rather portly, but
distinguished looking gentleman in a dark blue pin-striped suit.  He
picked himself up, and introduced himself - it was Sir Sangrathta

I looked at my watch.  "You're a bit early, aren't you?" I said,
noticing that it was only half past May.  He ignored that, sat down
and said "I have a problem."

That little phrase is one I hear twenty times a day.  Usually, I can
help people over the phone, in five minutes, off the top of my head.
Sometimes I have to spend a few hours unscrambling a disk for them.
But occasionally, "I have a problem" turns into a major consulting

Sir Sangrathta explained the problem, and it certainly sounded like a
doozy.  Each year, he received and had to process over two billion
orders.  Most of those were received in the month of December, most of
them were in an illegible hand-written scrawl, most of them didn't
give a delivery address, and they all had to be delivered on the same

But order processing was only part of it.  He also had to make sure
that the manufacturing process ran smoothly, so that product was
actually available in adequate quantities and to the correct product
description, in several thousand categories.  Raw materials had to be
ordered and paid for, he needed invoicing of the orders (and
statements to remind late payers drawn up) and last, and by no means
least, delivery had to be arranged at the right place and, most
importantly, at the right time.  It was an administrative nightmare.

"How did you get into this mess?" I asked.  "It was fine a few hundred
years ago", he replied.  "I really enjoyed it then.  Seeing the little
faces of the customers light up made it all worth while.  And life was
simpler then, there were only a few product lines, and only a few
million customers.  But it just grew and grew, and I'm working twenty
hour days, and I'm getting an ulcer, and I have rows with Mrs Claus,
and I can't take it any more." He put his head in his hands, and
looked miserable.

"There there", I said, because I couldn't think what else to say.
"Can you help me?", he said.  "Why don't you just give it up?" I said.
He looked at me.  "Can you imagine the consequences of that?"

I thought of my two, and the way they look forward to the Big Day, and
how they write little notes, and leave a mince pie for the reindeer,
and get up at 6am and start unwrapping.  I thought about the
alternative;  I thought about a tree with no little parcels, about the
disappointment and tears.  But most of all I was multiplying two
billion customers by ten presents by about £10 profit per customer,
and I was losing track of the noughts, and I thought about one percent
of that, and tears came to my eyes.  I agreed to take on the job.

I packed my warmest woollies, a portable PC, and we set off.  I was
quite surprised at the conveyance we used;  I'd expected a sleigh, but
it seems that 747s are much faster and more comfortable.  We took the
morning flight to Tokyo - this flies the great circle route over the
North Pole, and if I was surprised to be on a jumbo jet, imagine the
surprise of the stewardess when we left the plane at latitude zero.

As we floated down on our parachutes, I had a chance to look around.
There didn't seem to be any buildings or installations, but I could
see a glowing red beacon, and we headed for that.  As we got closer, I
could see that the beacon was attached to a horse with horns, and when
we landed nearby, I realised that I was looking at a genuine reindeer.
Santa introduced me - "Dr Solomon, this is Rudolf the Red, my

We were standing next to a small hut - surely this couldn't be the
mighty Claus empire?  He opened the door, revealing a flight of steps,
and we hurried underground, out of the bitter cold.

First, we went to reception.  All the cryptic handwritten orders come
here, to be decoded by expert graphologists, and typed neatly onto
official order forms by the fairies.  At the same time, the little
customer's name, address and invoice address is added, as they often
leave this out.

Next, we went to the Great Hall.  The place was gigantic.  Bands of
elves ran to and fro clutching papers, teams of trolls carried great
palletised loads, and dwarves carrying axes and hammers ran around in
groups of seven.  It was a kind of organised chaos, but overhead was
something truly remarkable.

Do you remember when shops sent dockets and change around on overhead
wires, and the sales person would put your order and payment in a
little cylinder, pull a handle, and it would go "chung" and the
cylinder carrying your order would fly off to the bowels of the shop.
And then it would come back with your change in a little cylinder.
Well, the air was thick with wires and cables, and the sound of
pull-chung was going all the time.  This was their communications
system, and in 1888, it was the very latest technology.

"When we put this in, we could pension off the pixies that used to
carry messages;  the pull-chung machines are much faster and more
reliable" explained Santa.  This contraption carried the orders from
the fairies to the elves, who sorted them by product line and made out
production dockets for the dwarves.  The dwarves made product to
satisfy these dockets, but they had a small number of goblins keeping
an eye on raw materials, who sent messages back to Purchasing if
anything ran low.  Purchasing was run by a group of wood-nymphs, and
they were constantly receiving requests for raw materials which they
filled by sending orders down to the kobolds in the mines that were
attached to the complex.

Finished product was shrink-wrapped and palletised, carried by the
trolls to the order-assembly points, where the griffins made up the
orders, working from the elves dockets.  These orders were passed to
the reindeer, who sorted them out into geographical drops, ready for
delivery on the big night.

The whole thing was unbelievably complicated, and the same data was
being copied again and again, but sometimes wrongly, and sometimes the
pull-chung machines misrouted or got stuck, invoicing details were
lost, delivery addresses weren't available, or the customer specified
an inappropriate product and no-one noticed, or credit was being
over-extended, or raw materials were ordered too late or in excess,
and some products were being over-produced and lay in great unwanted
heaps - it was a true shambles.

Sir Sangrathta and I retreated into his office, away from the din of
the pull-chung machines.  "This is hopeless", I said.  "I know", he
said, "Do you think a computer would help?" What a question!  Anyone
with half a brain could see that they had a problem that was a
standard business problem, solved with computers millions of times all
over the world.  the only difference was the scale of the problem, but
computers have got pretty powerful these days.

I set to work with a pencil (2B) and paper.  People sometimes ask me
why I use seventeenth century technology to design 1990s systems, but
the answer is simple - if I sit down at a computer, the temptation to
jump in and start coding is irresistable, and coding without design is
a capital error.

Obviously, we needed a LAN.  Equally obviously, no ordinary LAN would
do.  We needed to put order entry on it, customer address look-up,
order processing, invoicing, statements, delivery planning - the lot.
And everyone in the Sangrathta organisation would need access to the
database, which would be immense.  I did a few sums;  two billion
customers, perhaps 1k of information each, means two terabytes (two
million megabytes) of data.  Um.  I don't think you can get a disk
that big.

So how can I store two terabytes?  There are really only two ways -
the first is to use a mainframe (spit) and the second is to use
100,000 20mb hard disks.  But to use 100,000 hard disks, you need
50,000 computers, as you can only put two disks in a computer, because
of the way that hard disks are controlled.

This isn't as silly as it sounds.  I was going to need that many
computers anyway, to act as data entry or display screens, and to
control the output devices, and to do the processing.  It all fitted
together nicely, except that I couldn't see how to network that many

Networks can work in one of two ways;  the problem is that you can't
really have two computers sending messages down the network at once,
they have to take turns, and the problem is how to organise that.  The
token passing method works like a relay race - whoever has the baton
can do the running, and when you've finished with the baton, you pass
it on to anyone who wants it.  The good thing about this method is
that it is very organised, and performance is very predictable.  The
trouble is, there is only one baton, and if you have 50,000 computers
all competing for it, the ones at the far end will never see it.

The other method is CDMA, otherwise known as free-for-all.  Any computer 
wanting to use the network looks to see if it is free - if it is, it tries 
to grab it.  If it isn't, it waits.  If two computers try to grab the 
network at once, they collide, and they both back off and each waits a 
random time before trying again.  This is much less organised, but at least 
every computer stands some chance of getting control of the network for a 
while.  I decided to use this type of network, which means using Ethernet. 

In order to give each computer a chance to actually get some use of
the network, I had to minimise the time that each one spent hogging
it.  So I had to go for a very fast system, capable of carrying a lot
of traffic, and that meant optical fibres.

Next, I had to think about which database to use.  That wasn't very
difficult, actually.  End-user tools like dBase won't work in an
environment where the data is spread over 50,000 computers.  You have
to use a truly relational database, which faithfully sticks to all Ted
Codd's twelve rules.  With such a database, it doesn't matter where
the data is actually stored;  your program doesn't have to worry about
that.  Unfortunately, there aren't any databases that conform to all
the rules;  and that left me rather stuck.  But I shelved that problem
for a while, and thought about the cabling.

Cabling is always a nightmare.  You have to take up the floors, or
pull through ducts, and the curves are always too sharp, and there's
always a fault at the most unreachable bit.  It was worse here - there
was no floor apart from the bare rock, and I didn't fancy taking that
up.  Nor was there a false ceiling to lay the cables over, I though,
ruefully glancing up;  then I realised that the pull-chung machines
could serve a second purpose.  I'd use them to carry my optical fibre

The file server was easy - we didn't need one, as the database was
totally distributed.  But the output was difficult, as we needed to
fake hand written greetings cards.  My first thought was to use
flat-bed plotters, but then I worked out that we'd need about a
million of them, as they're quite slow, and we'd need a pixie to
change the paper for each one.  Then I remembered that hand writing is
just a different kind of font, and I decided to use laser printers
with soft fonts.  Because lasers are quite fast, I only needed a
thousand of them, and could attach them to the computers that were
already in the network.  I would also use those lasers for invoices,
delivery notes, statements and reminders.

I went to Sangrathta with my design.  Naturally, he noticed the hole
immediately - "Where are you going to get a relational database?", he
asked.  I admitted that I didn't know of one, and mumbled something
about asking Ted.  He beamed.  "I've got a better idea", he said.
"Would you like your present early this year?".  I must say I didn't
believe he could do it, as writing a truly relational database isn't
something you tackle lightly, but when he summoned the Chief Fairy,
and explained what he wanted, and the Chief Fairy waved his magic
wand, and there was a poof, and a nicely wrapped box appeared out of
nowhere, I swallowed my doubts.  And when I unwrapped it, it was
called "Truly Relational Database", by Ted Codd and blow me, it was.

So the plan was complete - all we had to do was implement it.  Have
you ever tried to buy 50,000 computers?  We tried Amstrad, but they
wouldn't give us any kind of discount, even for that quantity, as we
were end-users.  We tried several of the lesser-known manufacturers,
but they all said that 50,000 was more than they sold in a month of
Sundays, and they couldn't supply.  Just as we were about to give up,
and buy lots and lots of different brands (which would lead to lots
and lots of incompatibility problems), I remembered one more supplier
that we ought to try, who was probably big enough to supply, and who
offered Volume Purchase Agreements to major customers.  I phoned up

IBM were surprisingly helpful.  Yes, they could supply that quantity;
Yes, we could have a large volume discount;  Yes they could deliver
(although I heard a strangled noise when I told him where to) and Yes
there was a local dealer to support us - Moomintroll Technologies.
The Moomins were very helpful indeed, which wasn't surprising when I
went to visit their premises;  they weren't terribly big, they'd only
ever sold one other computer before (apparently, the first one went to
Rudolf the Red, and was being used to run the union).

Then I thought about the Ethernet cards - again, the problem was
getting 50,000 of them.  I went to the largest card manufacturer I
could think of;  Western Digital, who make just about every hard disk
controller that is ever sold.  They didn't sell an Ethernet card, but
when I explained what I wanted it for, and that we'd want 50,000, they
did a few sums and designed one just for us (which they now market
generally, and quite successfully).

Putting the network together went well.  The computers were solid IBM,
the Ethernet cards were good quality, and even stringing the cables
was done easily by the nimble elves, running along the pull-chungs and
tying them to the wires with pretty pink bows.  To help write the
software, we drafted in a herd of Unicorns.  This might sound unusual,
but remember that Unicorns are already familiar with Unix (indeed,
that operating system was named after them) and so are at home in a
multi-user environment.  They seemed to get on well with Truly
Relational Database, so I left them to it, and started organising the
training.  Yes, training.

I've seen too many major projects fail because no-one thought to train
the users in how to use it.  Even with the most user-friendly systems,
people are nervous about using it until they've been shown how.  So we
organised mammoth training sessions, and it turned out to be just as
well, as most of the users had never seen a computer before.

Round about December, we were ready.  The hardware worked (and if a
computer failed, a squad of dwarves would rush in and replace it).
The network worked (unlike most networks) because this one had been
properly designed.  The software worked, because Unicorns are fabulous
beasts, and magic to boot.  So nothing could possibly go wrong - and
if you believe that, you'll believe any fairy story.

The problems came from an unexpected direction.  Sir Sangrathta
decided, without telling me, that the system would work first time.
So when I tried to run the system in parallel with the old system, I
found that the old system had been chucked away, and we had to go live
on an untried system.

To my surprise, the system worked - the unicorns had worked their
usual magic.  Everything was running smoothly right up till December
23rd, when the reindeer started to use the system to organise the
deliveries, and then all hell broke loose.  In particular, what
happened was, Rudolf the Red called a strike.

It seems that reindeer hate unicorns - something to do with having the
wrong number of horns.  So when Rudolf's herd started using the
system, they complained about the user-unfriendliness of the system
"Reminds me of Unix", said Rudolf.  Then they complained that the
keyboards were too small (and looking at their hooves, I could
sympathise) and about the radiation hazard that they'd heard VDUs
represented, and about the chairs they were supposed to use (again, I
suppose I hadn't really thought about the fact that reindeer are a
different shape).  The strike spread, until the whole works was out.

I went to see Sir Sangrathta, but he'd left a note for me that said
something about nervous breakdowns and he'd done a bunk with Mrs

So here I sit, all alone in this huge, deserted, Great Hall, trying to
wrap up twenty billion presents.  I've done about three hundred so
far.  I haven't even thought about how I'm going to get them
delivered, or invoiced, or anything.  I need help, and soon.  Please
come and give me a hand, or a lot of little customers are going to be
terribly disappointed this year.

Drive down to Heathrow, and park in the Long-term car park - this is
going to take a while.  Get on to flight BA242 to Tokyo, and when you
compass needle spins and tries to stand on end, open the door, shout
"Geronimo", and jump.  Oh, and don't forget to put your parachute on

1 comment:

  1. Great story HO Ho Ho.
    Have a wonderful cache free Christmas !!
    Have you seen the new 100 cache series at Angmering estate (near Worthing ), 'Wear the Fox Hat'