October 23, 2014

Datacenter History: Through the Ages in Lego

The data center has changed dramatically through the ages, as our Lego minifigures can testify!

As a rule, I don’t participate in contests: There’s usually little reward, considering chances of winning. But when Juniper Networks asked me to build a datacenter from Lego bricks, I took a second look. And, seeing that the winner can support a charity of their choice, I felt that this was an excellent opportunity for me to have some fun while doing some good!

Update: I won! I’ll update this space with info on my charity once it’s approved by Juniper. Thanks everyone for your interest and enthusiasm!

Build the Best (Lego) Data Center

The rules of the Juniper Networks contest were simple: “(Build) a data center from a Lego kit provided by Juniper Networks.” Sounds ok so far, but as a Lego builder for more than 35 years, I knew the content of the kit would be critically important to my success.

I looked a bit deeper to see if I could add some pieces to the Juniper kit. Sure enough, “you’re free to add additional Legos and creative materials as you see fit.” So I could add more pieces. Excellent!

When the kit arrived, it was immediately clear that it was created from the “brick wall” at a Lego Store: All of the pieces are of the kind typically found in the “pick a brick” selection at the back of most Lego Stores. With this in mind, I decided to limit myself to only adding pieces from that same section, rather than raiding my own rather large Lego collection.

My Entry: Datacenter History: Through the Ages in Lego

Readers of my blog know that I love computer history. As part of Tech Field Day, I’ve been lucky enough to hold parties at the Computer History Museum in Palo Alto, and I have previously written in this blog about my visit to Bletchley Park. I also recommend the NSA’s National Cryptologic Museum in Washington DC; although I haven’t written about it here, I did post a number of photos to Flickr.

Therefore, I decided to focus on the history of computing in my Lego datacenter. Specifically, I would re-create key historic machines to contrast them with a modern view.

Colossus: The First Programmable Electronic Digital Computer

This Colossus replica is fully functional, using hundreds of “valves” and paper tape for storage and clocking!

Perhaps the most important computer in history is the first to be built. Colossus was used by British codebreakers during World War II. Although it was programmable, Colossus was not a general-purpose machine: It was only suitable for cryptologic computation involving counting and Boolean operators. Since the transistor had not yet been invented, Colossus was constructed entirely of valves (vacuum tubes, to us Americans), and this was its key feature.

My Colossus replica focuses on the valves and wiring. ENIAC is visible in the background.

My Lego Colossus focuses on the valves and wiring, along with the slim rack-mount design. The Juniper kit included a number of translucent red and blue cylinders, and these inspired me to add additional “valves” to the face plate. My Colossus replica resides in a drab grey room, reflecting the wartime use of the original machine. The operator is armed with a wrench, as this was an intensely mechanical, physical machine.

ENIAC: The First General-Purpose Computer

Four ENIAC panels at the University of Pennsylvania

Although sometimes disputed, ENIAC is certainly the most famous “first general-purpose computer”. ENIAC consisted of a number of “panels” that were programmed by a “function table”. Unlike the secret Colossus computer, ENIAC was widely publicized and became a worldwide sensation. Even today, the ENIAC name is commonly known even to those with little interest in computer history.

Four Lego ENIAC panels

My ENIAC was modeled after the four-panel display at the University of Pennsylvania. I focused on the different look of each panel, using Lego antennas as wiring. ENIAC is another slim rackmount computer, contrasting modern “refrigerator” design. This ENIAC resides in a clean, white datacenter, symbolic of the “glass house” used to show off fine machines such as this!

DEC PDP-11: My First Server

The DEC PDP-11 was highly influential

We now jump forward quite a bit, landing in the 1970’s to view Digital Equipment Corporation’s iconic PDP-11. No computer shaped today’s datacenter more than this minicomputer: Its CPU design influenced today’s microprocessors, it served as a platform for development of the C programming language and UNIX operating system, and its operating system influenced the design of CP/M and MS-DOS! Most importantly, the PDP-11 was the first datacenter computer I used. I learned BASIC programming on a teletype connected to a PDP-11 while in high school.

This Lego PDP-11 is ready to use!

My PDP-11 replica is pictured in a confined space along with a Xerox Alto, perhaps performing important business computing tasks. I focused on the colorful DEC look, though I was unable to locate any DEC purple plates for it. Thanks to right-angle plates, the PDP-11 features four different “axes” of Lego studs, and I was pleased that the hollow white studs matched the reel-to-reel tape drive featured on the original machine above.

Xerox Alto: The First Personal Computer?

The Xerox Alto marked a transition from the datacenter to the PC

Although not a PC, the Xerox Alto made computing personal. This was the first computer with a “desktop” GUI, and featured a mouse along with the familiar teletype keyboard. Xerox did not produce the Alto for sale, but it was built in volume and provided to educational institutions across the United States. It became the inspiration for the wave of GUI-driven personal computers that appeared in the 1980’s, from the Apple Macintosh to the Sun workstation. The Alto was also the platform for the first “WYSIWYG” applications and the Smalltalk programming environment.

A Xerox Alto in action

My Alto replica appears in front of the PDP-11 and is the only part of my datacenter with a programmer. She also reflects her time, when women were commonly employed in the datacenter as technicians and programmers. I replicated the air vents using “ridged” white bricks on three different Lego axes. The “feet” are actually top studs, with the base modeled upside down. The smoked glass screen is taller than it is wide, just like the Alto’s portrait-mode display.

The Legendary Cray Y-MP

Cray’s Y-MP featured a distinctive design

We now transition to the 1980’s and the legendary supercomputer, Cray’s Y-MP. Like the X-MP, Cray designed unique curved “wings”, complete with a “bench” at the base. This unusual look, a cross between a computer and living room set, captured my imagination and became the iconic supercomputer in my mind. I have been thrilled to spot Cray X-MP and Y-MP machines at a number of computer history museums, suggesting that the rest of the world remembers these machines as well.

A Cray Y-MP Model D in the NSA datacenter

The red Model D was the inspiration for my Cray replica. I placed it alongside a Thinking Machined CM-5 in a black NSA datacenter, inspired by my visit to their museum. This is the most fragile of my datacenter models, with the vertical cabinets balanced rather than affixed to the base in an attempt to replicate the iconic curved look. Those benches are actual red Lego chairs, though they’re hard to spot under the columns.

Thinking Machines Connection Machine 5

“FROSTBURG”, the NSA’s CM-5

If any supercomputer challenged the Cray Y-MP in the category of coolness, it was Thinking Machines’ black monolith, the Connection Machine. Featuring alternating corrugated and smooth black sides and impressive red LED lights, this was the image used to illustrate computing power in Jurassic Park and Mission: Impossible. The NSA used a fully tricked-out 512-node CM-5 for cryptanalysis throughout the early 1990’s, and this system is now on display at the National Cryptologic Museum.

The (Lego) NSA’s CM-5

My CM-5 replica resides next to the Cray in the NSA’s black datacenter. I was pleased to locate corrugated black bricks and translucent red plates to replicate the black monolith’s look, and placed a tiny flashlight inside for this shot. Perhaps my most simple creation, the CM-5 consists of a simple pattern of corrugated and smooth black bricks. A blue accent along the rear isn’t visible in this shot.

The Modern Datacenter

We now turn to today. Our modern datacenter evolved from the history shown here: We retain the same 19-inch rack mount system used for Colossus way back during World War II. All of our machines are “Turing Complete” like the ENIAC. We run UNIX and Windows Server on CPUs spawned from the PDP-11, and our Windowed GUIs reflect the Xerox Alto. Today’s multi-core servers and multi-threaded operating systems carry the lessons learned by Cray and Thinking Machines.

A modern datacenter, complete with an EMC VMAX, Juniper router, and rackmount servers

My Lego datacenter tour ends here, with two racks of modern equipment. At the rear is an EMC Symmetrix VMAX which, like the CM-5, calls attention to its black monolith shape with a light bar. At front is a Juniper T-Series router (white vertical cards with a blue top) rack-mounted with a number of gold servers. Our technician holds an iPad while walking across a smooth raised floor. I even used a stress-reducing blue color for the walls!

Although the Symmetrix model only has three Lego axes, the router rack features four: The servers sit on forward-facing studs while the router is vertical. Both use black side panels, reflecting today’s “refrigerator” design.

Stephen’s Stance

I’m very pleased how my Lego tour through datacenter history turned out. Although the models are not perfect, it was fun to experiment and discover ways to show classic computer gear with a limited selection of parts. And I’m glad to have hit on the “five datacenters in one” design! I hope you enjoyed my little tour through the past!

All entrants in this contest will designate a charity to receive a cash gift, with the first, second, and third-place entries bringing substantially more. I would like to name The National Museum of Computing as the beneficiary of my award. I thoroughly enjoyed my trip to Bletchley Park to see the rebuilt Colossus (thanks for taking me, Greg!) and know that they could use the money to further the goal of education on computer history.

  • http://www.deepstorage.net/ Howard Marks

    I love them.

  • http://chriscowley.me.uk/ Chris Cowley

    You are such a geek :-) I think I might have to go and raid (haha, gettit) my boy’s lego collection too

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  • PRInformant

    I really like the point about adding other pieces, just like in a real life Data Center, you would add other (as in vendors) pieces to make it really work.

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  • Ramon S

    The Colossus was not the first programmable computer. How many times do we need to read this error? The Zuse Z1 from 1937 was a fully programmable binary computer although it was entirely mechanical. The Z3 from 1941 was fully programmable, touring complete, and except for the RAM fully electronic. The memory was still mechanical but more so out of necessity than choice.
    I don’t want to belittle the engineering marvel that the Colossus from 1943 is, but it is not the first computer. I suggest that the story gets corrected accordingly. We owe it to Konrad Zuse who to this day gets far too little credit for the work he has done.

  • Will

    Awesome! thanks! Please follow up on your placement.

  • http://www.linkedin.com/in/tvleavitt Thomas Leavitt

    Totally awesome!!!