Sunday 22 December 2013

Another computer for Christmas

This was also written about 30 years ago.

A computer for Christmas

It was April, and the elves were still sorting out the shambles from
last Christmas.  And a right shambles it was too;  boys toys sent to
girls, girls toys sent to boys, and some customers getting no presents
at all.  The reindeer schedule had been cobbled together at the last
minute, the dwarves were given the wrong production dockets - a complete
shambles.  Everyone was fed up, and highly cheesed off with the boss.
The dwarves were fed up at the amount of overtime they'd put in, the
reindeer were seriously thinking about a strike, and the elves were

Rudolf "the Red", the reindeer's shop steward, called a meeting, and
invited delegations from the dwarves and elves to attend as observers.
"We can't go through another year like this.  We've got to force
management to invest some of their bloated profits to move forward into
the future." he said.  Everyone agreed, and so they formed the Ad Hoc
Committee to Study Ways and Means.

By the time the committee had reported back, it was July, and by then
everyone had gone on holiday.  So it was not until September, at the
annual Conference that the report was examined.  The Ad Hoc Committee's
conclusions were simple - all aspects of ordering, production and
distribution had to be computerised, and Conference endorsed the report
and voted that it be made a non-negotiable demand at the next meeting
with management.

Meanwhile, in a penthouse deep under the North Pole, Sir Sangrethta
Claus and the rest of the main board of Christmas PLC were having a
meeting.  "It worked a treat", said Sir Sangrethta.  "They'll be
practically begging us to put in computers." For some time now, Sir
Santa had been trying to introduce modern technology throughout his
plant, but it had to be done carefully, as a strike at the wrong time
would have a disastrous impact on his bottom line.

So in early October, Rudolf and his fellow negotiators sat down at the
table with Sir Sangrethta Claus and his industrial relations director,
expecting a tough fight.  But after a token resistance, the threat of a
December strike worked as usual, and management acceded to the worker's
just demands.  Perhaps it was as well that Rudolf didn't hear Sir
Santa's "Ho ho ho" as he left the meeting.

Naturally, at that point, they called in the best consultant they could
find, so I packed my warmest woollies, and set off for the North Pole.
They had written down their requirement, which made a change, so when I
sat down for my first meeting with Santa, I knew what to expect.

The problem was a little unusual.  It was a standard ordering, stock
control, production, distribution and accounts system they needed, but
with a highly seasonal demand pattern, and with a rather high volume.
About two billion customers must receive their presents exactly on time,
and although some orders are received in good time, for the most part
the customers don't do anything until the last minute.  Santa gave me a
guided tour of the system.  "The orders come in here", he said, "and go
down to the elves.  They enter them in a ledger, with the name and
address of the customer.  Each order is given a number, and a production
docket is filled in." We proceeded to the workshops.  Almost drowned by
the din of hammers, Santa shouted "The dockets are distributed from
here".  A dwarf rushed past, sneezing violently and carrying a big pile
of boats.  "We're already ramping up production for this year.  Each
docket is given to the dwarf that specialises in that particular
product", he said.  "When the toy is finished, the docket is pinned to
it, and it goes back to the elves."

We went back upstairs to see another band of elves.  They were matching
the docket numbers to the ledger entries, and tying a label with the
delivery address to the goods.  "From here it goes to dispatch", Santa

"What about invoicing?", I asked.  He took me into another large room,
where yet more elves were working from huge directories of birth and
marriage certificates.  "We have to work out which parents to invoice;
it isn't always as simple as it sounds.  Some customers have several
parents, some have none.  But they all have to get presents, and it all
has to be paid for."

"I never realised you ran such a complex operation", I said.  Santa
turned and looked at me.  "This is the biggest business in the world.
There are two billion customers, and on the average they get twenty five
pound's worth of toys.  Our turnover is bigger than most governments.
Over the years, we've gradually built it up from a non-commercial and
amateurish thing into a proper big business."

We went on to Distribution.  Here, the reindeer were gift-wrapping the
presents, sorting them according to post codes, and passing them down a
chute to the loading bay, where they were piled up on the sleighs.  "The
trouble is, everything's done by hand, and takes forever.  We have to
service our two billion customers in an incredibly short space of time,
so the work force is enormous, and grossly underutilised most of the

I agreed.  "Yes," I said, "I can see a lot of ways that computers would
help.  For example, looking up the customer's parents should obviously
be done by a database, and the post code sort could be done at the same
time." Santa beamed.  "There's a lot of things that need doing;  it's a
big job," I continued.  "Probably be able to get it done in a couple of
years or so."

Santa's beam turned into a blench.  "Gulp", he gulped.  "We've got to
have it in time for the coming Christmas." Now, I'm used to tight
deadlines, but this was ridiculous.  "Not possible", I said.  "Can't be
done.  You can't just wave a magic wand and expect a major system like
this to appear out of thin air in no time at all.  It needs careful
analysis, specification, design and finally coding;  at least two

"What if we waved a million magic wands?", asked Santa.

"?", I said.

"We can use the fairies.  The wishing level doesn't get very high until
much later in the year, so they haven't got much to do.  They can do the
grunt work of actual coding and data entry, but we need you to design
it.  It must be done for this year, and money is no object".

That last phrase silenced the objections forming in my throat.  Little
cash registers went ding in my head, and my eyes filled with pound
signs.  Maybe the job couldn't be done by ordinary means, but with a
million wishes at my disposal, maybe, just maybe ...

It took me two weeks to complete the fundamental design.  I started by
designing the data structure, in the best Wirth tradition.  The main
problem was the sheer size of it.  Santa had said two bilion customers,
but I knew that you have to allow for growth.  The problem is that the
largest integer that you can store in four bytes is four billion, even
storing it unsigned.  And I had to assume that the North Pole operation
might one day be expanded to cover the customer's parents as well as the
customers themselves, which would require six billion records.  This, I
realised, was a major problem, as it meant that I couldn't use an
off-the-shelf data handling package like dBase II, but would have to
code from scratch.  I had to invent a new type of integer, the six-byte
integer, and all indexing would be done with those.  It was also clear
that one IBM PC would not be able to cope with the problem, so a network
system would be needed, with its added complexity.

There were many other problems that I'd never met before;  one was the
problem of magnetism.  Being sited exactly at the North Pole, compasses
went crazy, and I was worried about how the magnetic media would cope.
So I specified Faraday cages for all equipment, and a second cage to go
around the entire computer area.

I decided to keep records for all potential customers, as well as
current ones.  This was partly with one eye on future expansion, but
also to simplify the problem.  So each record contained the customer's
name, address and post code, codes that indicated past deliveries to
that customer, the customer's birthday (again, with an eye on future
expansion), and pointers to the records on the customer's parents.
There were also fields for the current orders, and fields to record the
progress of the order.

The elves job would therefore be simplified - all they had to do was
read the customer's order (sometimes the handwriting was atrocious),
call up the customer's record and enter the order details.  Invoicing
would be automatically routed to the correct parents, using the pointers
in the database, and the reindeer could deliver the invoices as part of
the main drop, instead of having to make a separate journey.

A separate data base would take care of production and stock control,
but they would use common codes, and there would be links between the
two data bases.  The docket system would be abolished, and dwarves would
simply make product to replenish stocks, whenever a computer-generated
forecast of stocks got too low.  This would free the dwarves from all
paperwork, and let them get on with their real work, which would make
them less grumpy.

They wouldn't have to transport the goods around either.  Part of the
design called for pixies to do the gift-wrapping, and they could also
transport the goods to the warehouse.

The reindeer would have less paperwork also.  The computer would be able
to decide when a full sleigh-load for a particular area could be made
up.  It would them print out a list of goods and the dispatch address.
The reindeer would draw product from inventory already gift-wrapped,
stick the label on, and load it into the sleigh along with the invoices
that needed sending to the same address.  They could then concentrate on
their main job of hauling the goods to market, and on arrival, insertion
of the goods into the appropriate receptacle.

The total size of the database was 2 billion records, with each record
being 1K long, for a total of 2 trillion bytes (2 million megabytes, or
2 terabytes.  Since the largest hard disk available is only about 400
megabytes, we would need 5,000 of them.  I specified 5000 IBM ATs as
file servers, linked together in groups of 64.  Each group of 64 had an
AT as a supervisor, and the supervisors were again grouped in a network
into clusters of 64.  With 4096 file servers per cluster, I needed only
two clusters, but there was the potential to expand to three or more, as

Backup looked as if it would be a bit of a problem.  But I solved that
in the usual way, by not having any.  I did specify, however, that all
the file servers be blessed, just as a precaution, which is more than is
done at most sites.

Printing was a problem.  You can't put a typewritten label on a present,
so I wanted to use laser printers to create the appearance of hand
writing.  But lasers can't handle colours, so eventually, I settled on
flat-bed plotters as the primary output devices.  The problem is that
they are slow, so I had to have quite a lot of them.  A label takes
about three minutes to write;  add another five for removing it and
putting in a blank, and each plotter will turn out 200 labels per day.
We would have about a month to make 2 billion labels.  In the plotter
room, therefore, there would have to be 300,000 plotters, with each
group of four driven by its own plotter-server.

The order data entry would mean keying in a peak of 200 million orders
per day.  Each elf could input 500 orders per day, so 400,000 data entry
machines would be needed, networked using the same clustering system as
the file servers.

Finally, I had to think about the machine that would be used to sort and
process the information.  Clearly, something powerful would be required,
and so the choice was easy - since the most powerful machine around was
the 386, it had to be one of those.

The overall design, therefore, called for half a million IBMs knitted
together into the largest LAN ever built, connected to 2 terabytes of
disk storage, and using 300,000 plotters for output.

I was very pleased with the final design, and had it typed up by one of
the fairies, and took a copy to Sir Sangrethta.  "How much will all this
cost?", he asked.

"About four billion pounds", I said, "which works out at two pounds per
customer." "Cheap at the price", said Santa, handing me a cheque with
more noughts on it than I could comfortably carry.  I went down to the
leprachauns to have it converted into bags of gold, and then got the
goblins in Purchasing to raise an order.  I'm not sure exactly which
box-shifter got the order but I'm sure that celebrations must have gone
on far into the night, probably until dawn.  By the time the sun rose,
and the gold had changed back into straw, we'd got the machines safely
under the Pole.  It's a tough life, being a box-shifter.

Then my problems really began, as we had to set up the hardware, and at
the same time write the software and begin to enter the data.  Have you
ever tried to teach Turbo Pascal to a million fairies?  The trouble is,
they haven't got a very long attention span, and no notion of working
systematically.  All they seemed to want to do was wave their wretched
wands about.  But I got them working together, and soon they were
churning out code at a great rate.  Somehow, we got the elves all
trained in keyboarding, in spite of the problem with their hands being
too small.  The reindeer were the worst.  I don't know how I managed to
overlook the fact that you can't operate a keyboard with hooves, but we
managed to set up a system using a touch sensitive screen, which they
regularly broke (it was the iron horseshoes that was the problem) until
someone (I think it was Rudolf the Red) suggested that they use their

By the time I finished training the maintenance dwarves, whose idea of
fixing things seemed to be to hit them with a hammer, and handed the
system over to the team of pixies who would be running it and doing the
software maintenance, it was the middle of November, and the system had
to go live without any proper testing.

I collected my fee from Santa (I insisted on five-pound notes, having
seen what happened to fairy gold) and went back to London, expecting to
get a call at any time.  The design is sound, but it is a worryingly
large system, and I'm not sure how the blessings on the disks will stand
up to actual use.  I'm also worried about some of the magic that the
fairies used in the software engineering, and if those dwarves start
bashing around with their hammers ...

Well, you see the problem.  The job was rushed, the documentation is
inadequate, the testing was non-existent.  I'll be very surprised if it
all hangs together for this year's peak, and it really wants re-doing
properly after the rush is over.  If I were you, I wouldn't rely on
getting your usual annual visit this year.  If you want your little
customers to be sure of getting their presents, you should go out and
get them yourself, and pretend that they've come from the usual source.

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