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Computers And Communication

Like the brains of animals, computers have


evolved from dedicated, single-mindedness into
general-purpose information processors. This
month's column takes us through a brief survey
of the changes in the capabilities of micro-,
mini-, and mainframe computers, concluding
with how telecommunications are generally used
with each type of computer.
When computers were first introduced, they
were designed and wired to perform a particular
job. When the job was done, either it was
performed again with new information inserted,
or the computer was rebuilt to run a different
job. A patch board reprogrammed the computer
by reconfiguring the way the hardware was put
together. Such reprogramming was necessary
because there was just not enough memory
available to hold both the program and data at
the same time. (IK of memory was a lot back
then.)
Batch Processing
Later, as the available memory size increased (to
a whole 4K), software programmable machines
were built. This improvement allowed the
machine to be automatically "built" by the same
mechanism that was used to load the data into
the machine. Since most of the time spent on the
computer was in "building" it for the particular
job at hand, this improvement also permitted an
interesting approach to processing, called batch
processing.
Batch processing involves loading the program
and data into the machine from a mass storage
device (usually a tape drive) and running the
program. The results are then saved (printed, put
back on the tape or on punch cards). The
program and data are then purged from the
system, and a new program/data job is loaded
into the machine. Batch processing helped

increase the popularity of these very expensive


machines. But they required intensive use to
make them worth the cost.
Using The Computer's Time
As computer costs increased, even batch
processing was insufficient to offset the costs of
the computer. Analysis of computer operations
showed that much of the computer's time was
spent waiting for information to be given to it. If
the computer could be subdivided into
individually operating parts
(or subprocessors), it would be possible to
request the information from a slow external
device, such as a tape drive, and while the
information was being retrieved, another job
could be loaded into the computer and operated
on. The processor could later return to the
original job and finish it.
Eliminating the computer's inactive or waiting
times greatly contributed to the efficient
utilization of the computer. By sharing the
computer's resources, several different jobs
could run at the same time. Careful control of
access to the various parts of the system could
actually make the computer work like several
different computers at the same time. Several
users could therefore use the computer without
interfering with or being aware of each other.
This brought into being time-share computers.
Since a user seldom uses the system
continuously, someone else could use it when it
would otherwise be idle.
Patterns Of Development
When the minicomputer (bigger than a "micro,"
smaller than a "mainframe") came into being, it
went through the same sequence of
development. It started out as a computer
designed to solve a particular problem and
developed into a general purpose machine. The
difference: by the time the minicomputer was

developed, it was cheaper to design it to be


program-controlled rather than to have fixed
control. This was true because many parts of the
machine could be shared by many parts of the
program. Because it was not necessary to have
individual parts available for each action the
computer performed, the computer could
actually "rebuild" itself on the fly.
The result was a shift from the mainframe
concept of computing. Since large mainframe
computers operate best where there are large
chunks of data to be processed, they tend to be
run mostly as batch processing machines where
an entire job, or a large portion of it, is operated
on before moving on to something else. The
minicomputer, however, is more suitable to
applications where the job requirements are
varied and rapidly shifting. They are thus most
often found in time-share applications where the
ability to handle a large number of jobs
simultaneously is more important than the actual
processing time. The minicomputer can't meet
the raw crunch power of the mainframe, but it
surpasses the mainframe in adaptability.
A Rapid Change In Microcomputers
When the microcomputer came along, again the
same development pattern was followed. Like
the mainframes and minicomputers, the
microcomputer was initially developed for
single-job applications. But it moved on to more
generalized applications more rapidly than either
of the other computers. Since the microcomputer
was developed as a result of Large Scale
Integration (LSI chips), the computers could be
created at a very low development cost and an
unbelievably low production cost.
The microcomputer too does not have the crunch
power of the mainframe, nor does it have the
adaptability of the mini. What it does have is
low cost of implementation, which makes it the
first computer ideally suited to fixed job

applications. Some of these applications are


found in the calculator, smart thermostats,
microwave oven controllers, etc.
In between these fixed applications and the
minicomputer are the high level microcomputers
(which are coming to be called personal
computers). These computers, though sometimes
not suitable to the rapidly changing job
environment of the mini, do have general
processing capabilities. This makes them ideal
for personal computing since only a single job
generally needs to be run at one time, but the
types of jobs that the computer is required to
perform are varied.
Telecommunications Needs
You might be wondering, "That's all very fine,
but what has this got to do with
telecommunications?"
Actually, there is a very definite relationship
between the type of computer and its needs in
telecommunications. Large mainframes seldom
need extensive telecommunications. When they
do have such a need, it generally involves
special communication circuits designed
specifically for the computer system, such as
airline or hotel reservation systems, or banking
systems. Minicomputers, because they are highly
adaptive, tend to use a wide variety of
communications capabilities. Examples are the
many time-share systems and service bureaus.
Microcomputers, as opposed
to personal computers, generally don't have a
need for telecommunications. When they do, the
telecommunications tend to be specific to the
device or application. In fact, in some
applications, the microcomputer is the
communications device, as it is with some of the
high-powered modems available.
Finally, with the personal computer,

communications vary depending on the use to


which the computer is put. Generally, the
application consists of machine to machine
communications between users or connection to
a large data base service like Micronet or The
Source.
These are only generalizations, of course, and it
is quite easy to find exceptions to the rule. You
can find microcomputers handling multiple
communications devices, and fully dedicated
minicomputers that have no outside
communications at all. As a general rule,
however, these basic patterns prevail.