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Digital Equipment Corporation



In the 1970s and 1980s, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC)was the second-largest computer manufacturer in the United States. Digital's culture is highly focused on engineering, and the company has a history of innovation. Its corporate strategy was based partly on wellengineered products that offered a superior price/performance ratio. A second critical element of its strategy, the subject of this case study, was flexibility-flexibility that enabled DEC to configure a computer system to meet very precisely the customer's needs. In 1975, DEC offered 50 types of central processors with 400 core options. The estimated possible number of configurations at that time was already in the millions. DEC's flexibility worked so well that equipment sales revenue grew 29 percent per year compounded from 1972 to 1985.

System configuration was the key process in DEC's flexibility strategy, for it conv rted a customer's order into a fully configured system t at was designed, checked and ready for delivery. This p cess involved three separate reviews of each order. Th first two steps relied upon highly skilled and talente technical editors (TEs) who learned their craft throug a long apprenticeship. The final review was FA&T (fast as embly and test)-an actual assembly of the system pri r to delivery. In 1975, DEC maintained a 13-acre, $ 15 to $20 million facility to carry out these test assemblies Elapsed time from signed order to delivery was ten to tift en weeks, extending at times . even up to six months. G owth projections indicated that DECwould need three m re FA&T facilities over the next ten years, an enormous e pense just to maintain the al-


Chapter 17 Artificial Intelligence

i. March 1989.."8A/'" OW"BA/A oWMBA/A OWMBA/A DWMRA/8 OR83l·£ c IICA·8B 181<50 OW"'IA/B . I I I I I PONE A SUPPl' I I II II . Today the crucial knowledge base that had resided within the TEs has migrated to CSDG.. .. Determines and lists cabling inrormation.." .~ T l IC .. :I---------I-. cabinets.----I. sales.0 __ ~..~ 4 NUfilS(R 6200T~101 ''''l'P'SO U6?A.L"" i"SC. Reprinted .IINE 0 'AGE 1 RUN OA'UI ICON lI[lEAS( fULL SYSTEM COMP()lIEfriTS 1I'1l. Using the customer order as input. estimates were that the configuration expert staff of 50 to 60 would have to increase to perhaps 200..1 I.--. COMPO"UIT LINE QU s ADDED NAME DESCRIPTION SHIELDED SHIHDEO Sttl(LO[D SHiElDED SI CABtL CABLl.'::!:O~.. 0(("..0:0.o- i' IUNllj. manufacturing..AFBI • \ 17. DEC's technical editors (TEs) were critical to configuration.J IdEO£O 10 (0. which means they were critical to sales. The position required a great deal of technical knowledge and skill. I . ME CALYPSO "'HO[O TO (ONIHCT HSOl·SA AHO FIIO"T·A.. Later the Configuration Systems Steering Committee (CSSC) was formed. ~A61"" AA ezru Uf (lUST PROClSSOIl M£MOR" S15 ece/ec P'PL 15"'.1 I klJlll1 Il:'Ju "O[lE·ID I ------12011-------11>------11012------- ===-=:..I I. I2FTi.. <1 Ii· 11l:1J6 I: I ~: ~~I "S6t ..18).AND S(008·A8 "[(OED rOR UH832-M "[(0[0 FOR 0"812-M N([O(O II£OUIII(O FOil OIlIH·EO If TIJ.----------tl 8'0'" CUS10M(I~_"AM[ .A'" ~:=::~:: OPTION UNit 0 n~~ ~~---~---------.. Several related expert systems have spun off the original XCON: XSEL. As XCON grew in power.'"----------------11 I --II I. L I I .'O'. and manufacturing personnel. 1·0ll-1988 U8: 11 JWITH ADDITIONS AS R(OIl'III.. CO".: I I I ott. field service."UM~~R 6200TSTOI CUSTOMER·"Aln PROU'lINE 0 PAull 10-1~900·01 • 0 tcn-. DEC maintained a permanent apprenticeship program to develop the essential skill pool. L I rl----~_....H. CSDG has grown to maintain a staff of over 60..~~c::::~a.. and manufacturing.lJIOI '''JO I I~... Development of XCON did not involve major turf battles within DEC. I I I I . activities tend to concern reviewing rather than decision making. In addition.:g~:::=:~'1 < : (REAli) J .4.."0 rIlO. and SIZER. CO"fIGlIIHO W(R[ 1101 011812-" ORBll-III..-.. DEC's configuration system.----------------1 . XFL. Barker and Dennis E. The project. . I 1==='=============1 IKIJ) PIiOU'lINE U 10·l4900-01 .-" PAGl 1.. ~:: j I ~~j.!:.'00:01 ~6S7:[c. TEs still exist in DEC but the position has become more clerical.. : . field service.M 'I I i i '> ----1l04)---- < ~~j!I>====.t I .. Association (or Computing Machinery.O 'r-----' I I sCOOS·{AB 0 I .~__ ----~.= ===~ I I I 0 --- -T 1022 = . disks.0 COJtflGuUTJOJl ORDERED LitH on 0[5(IIIP11011 NAME 61. I .. DUAL 4. Virginia E.. was born. " " " 18 UCIA·IO Cl·DHI12'AJ [l . Today the rule base has expanded to over 10. made up of strategically focused managers representing XCON's major business constituencies. TU81-PtU£.~'_'-". . printers. ' ') :_. 11FTi. memory..-~ 8'0'" ... "[[OED TO courcT HSCSX·8A 01..I II I I. i I I 1~:j:..~0~I~i------~i---L------~ ' ' ' " .. Ih~O·U L."£0 HSC10·AA.~.ready slow delivery time..-------.. Adapted (rom: Fleure WHAT THE XCON SYSTEMS CAN DO XCON is used to configure customer orders and to guide the assembly of these orders at the customer site. XNET.:\. ''') I I I '" i .000 rules.c.. and so XCON. ..• .B 0. and other operating units were strongly supportive of efforts to solve the configuration problems and to use results from configuration systems to solve other problems. I I I tiEl L ..=: KJJI klJ?t~----Tl012----<1 l)Jsl> --T1044---llJ61>----Tl0l4----<1 I ~1. I I Case Study I 621 .JI r-"..:ggg=======..-. • [l1{IIN AoP1 .. a centralized and somewhat isolated organization of programmers.---------------h r---. 60Hl! WIiTH CAB MASTER 240V 60:H1 au Il 0 I"G 8l0C~I.-.:--=-ng!!:-..-". informal contacts with business planners and leaders who strongly supported the project were the primary means of linking the programmers to the business.. tapes. OMI32'LJ CIl:·UIl832'lJ 0IllM"'·8A 610015101 CUHOM[R L""OUT (1180 CAILE·IO "'[1(115 " ~::l ~~p~. VAlS]. lulL 12f 11.UB1E. was originally a research effort composed largely of engineers and technologists. : r. Before XCON.-01' 12 ME GABy TE s 011111)£·'" DMBJl·" 011832-£ DllaH·1! TU8H-6A S(008-A( U19·IF 5"'600-" . 60tt 8 NODE 1 OF THESE W[AE "OT coer IGUAED 1 Of HlfH wER[ "01 STAR COUPUR.tM' ..( CAlYPSO PIIOU-i. XCLUSTER. TEs were dispersed and in daily contact with sales.._:+ (Af~O . ~f <I ~I ' ORB12·f lLlSI·BB DHI1I'-fII O(INA. o.y permission. computers were growing more complex. ~~3! I~:-':. To make matters worse. Inc."!: ~1~'r~18. and so on. 6"'5'".::: 1(2J~ 1>----lI046---l2J61~.8Ga ACC SA COllf IGURlO DIGITAL'S XCON: LEARNING BY DOING XCON was one of the first expert systems in daily production use in industry. and field service by configuring a customerls order. (0) ~r----. DEC had to find a new way to configure its orders. ordered with! configuration-related 1 Lists components comments. A·O II[fO(D TO (OMIIH' HSC!lK·8A AND fRONT-A. Copyright 1 89. 11 FOil 011832 ! EXP CA8 1081. IL'_'~~_.---.. : ' ? r 10:2. ors "Expert Systems (or Configuration at Digital: XCON and Be ond. increasing even fur~ ther the number of configuration options... II' II II 12] 4 56 18910 : I 11-------------I II . which was called CSDG (the Configuration System Development Group). H9400'fF I = =Il:~ ~I~ K1J2 I> == =. Figu'~e 17..(.60 PROD·LIN£ . The TE staff had to be large enough to handle orders during peak periods. The system continues to function and has grown in strategic significance for the company.. it provides the following functionality: • Configures CPUs.IIII[. H014 ..I1 .. W/M( " Of THfS( HUl TJfuII' 16-CHAII WAlII.£(0[0 TO (ONIHCT H$C5l·U AND FROltl .---. I' tl1I400. 1..:.:50 PAGE ~ 0((·NUM8EII c .[O) AS Of W!I..18 i Sample output from XCON..A.rc. The project was established in 1979 with a staff of two and an expert rule base of 250 rules. They are consulted much less than in the past and no longer have the authority to block an order pending the solution of technical problems. Manufacturing." Communications of the ACM. AS'NC MUl. power supplies...-.0111'(11 '('0015101 (U5101ll(1I·""'".============1 (IIt"'lIl H9.. r jij'.I I ~ ------TlOll ======ggg::===-===S.. . The infor~ation provided by XCON will assist a broad set of users from sales..) 10 BC16V-12 8((6'1·12 si 12 13 8C26Y·12 51 CABtL SI CABU.J I I II 4 .fO (Aal 01111-'11 AOP "O:CABL B1-IUS. .1." [ I I I 81..8~gg n v 5 F1 CABLE 6100 y .. • • • Diagrams complete system CO~figUration (See overlay samples of XCON output.----------~.

19 for system architecture supporting peripherals software." Communications of the ACM. 1--· 1--· L . The inito assist manufacturing plant technical correctness of system is now used by a broad set of XSEUXCONarchitecture. O'Connor. I Output OPSS. Reprinted by permission.• Generates warning messages on issues affecting technical validity..!!fi£'!!:~i~n_!~e.------------. • Checks software compatibility. Barker and Dennis E. Association for Computing Machinery.3). this releases of its systems one interim upgrade to e announcement requ The configuration C\lcton-lCi the corporation.. 1 . systems must include newest products at the ment. begun in 1986. throughout profile of the configuration sys(see Table 17. it provides the following functionality: Allows interactive selection by generic component name. .--.19 rations. working memory OPSS XSEL 10 database Use r . • Performs completeness checking. and to validate the technical correctness of the resultant network configuF. In practice.. re 17. Inc. Besides these four systems currently in production use. The tems has expanded dra tial purpose of XCON personnel in validating orders about to be filled. while adding and suggesting required parts.! _ J . See Figure 17. • Provides computer room environmental data and requirements. I __ ~o. XNET is used to design local area networks. license and media completeness.uration input & results MISC Diagram output Configuration database 1 XCON5 XCON!. XCON3 XCON2 XCONl 1 1 1 . to select appropriate components for such networks. SIZER assists in quired for any of a wide of uses in various types of organizations. Begun in 1981.. and by partial or full model number. "Expert Systems for Configuration at Digital: XCON and Beyond.. Adapted from Virginia E. is used to diagram a computer-room floor layout for the configuration(s) under consideration. working memory diagram database 622 I Artificial 17 Chapter Intelligence . XCON5 Confir. is used interactively to assist in the selection of saleable parts that make up a customer order. XCLUSTER is used to assist in configuring computer clusters. two other configuration systems are under development. XFL. • are used worldwide. prerequisites.. March' Copyright 1989. XSEL. SCOPE OF XCON AND RELATED The configuration c::vc::r"'"HI for Digital's current consisted of 42 different types and their suooornna be useful business tools. which relies on XCON's data. rnte rface t Run-time library XSEL 10 objects Components & templates & template Component database XCON control r ..

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XSEL was originally designed for use by sales representatives and is now used by Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) customers as well. Flexible manufac uring is aided by the precise knowledge of wh ch parts are needed in inventory. precisely what they require. Thus. field service. toguide the assembly of all orders. It considers them to be a solid success for the company by contributing to customer satisfaction. • • ~yst~~s. XCON 0 rules. Overall.4). and there was no sysethodology. DEC was able to eliminate FA&T and to reduce average shipping time to three or four weeks. and although the costs might be known. and can identify potential problems in system-level design and manufacturability. After ten years of develystem was redeveloped using a more methodology called RIME. sometimes even to only two or three days. These systems allowed DEC to remain competitive and even to thrive in the 1980s as DEC's sales mushroomed and the market demanded shorter response time. They are viewed as absolutely critical to the strategy of customizing applications for customers. which is very good at situati n recognition but poor at algorithmic controls. and higher productivity. and engineering. Specific benefits include the following: • Only complete Size Today XCON is larg alone has over 10. Tools Expert system tools today are highly limited. everything wa tems development opment. in a timely fashion. To extend he power of OPS5. test. some of which are described here. to determine which plants should build which segments of an order. the average n mber of tests that each rule must make on each cycle to determine whether it is applicable is 6 x 5 = 30. the CSDG configuration systems support over 50 production installation sites as well as traditional and expert systems that depend on their data.users across the company's major functions: sales and marketing.0 have another 8000 tray the representat Table 17. as analysis of product knowledge for inclusion in the configuration systems. The average number of attributes patterns. The users of these systems perform functions that span Digital's complete order flow and manufacturing cycle. Manufacturing DEC has never cond cted a formal study of the benefits of XCON and its relate systems. and the related systems ules. Along with some of those raised already.are optimized IS minimized. .000 I nes of code were written in traditional languages like BASIC and C. to understand physical partitioning of an order into various subassemblies. • Field service has the perspective of assembling the order in the customer's unique environment. for instance. DEC is highly dependent on its configuration systems. manufacturing and production. Officials estimate that the configurati n systems save $40 million per year net of all costs. This is a large and varied constituency to support . • • • Sales uses the configuration systems as an integral part of the automated process to generate quotations for customers and to ensure that every order is technically valid. They tend not to produce effici nt systems.) is 5. for the customer and confusion A single source f configuration information for the company aids in the introduction of new products by showing how the fit into the whole DEC product line. Implementation of XNET will add specialized field support personnel to the user list in the near future. Consid • • • and complex by any standard. rapid turnaround of orders became a requirement for survival. the entire explicit and efficient simplified the rule b learn and understan rted. and to determine the optimal set of diagnostics to run on each order. When XCON first st cept. that elements per rule per condition (tests. permitting DEC to deliver to customers. • Manufacturing and engineering benefit from the configuration systems' focus on system integration. But these numbers do not poronal complexity of the rule base (see r. Using XCON. per rule (the 624 I Artificial 17 Chapter Intelligence and consistent orders are shipped. Flexible distribut on is aided by allowing system field experts rapidly t assemble parts originating from different factorie . • uses the information to verify buildability of all incoming orders. thus they are involved with many different business processes. RIME has se and made it easier for people to the system. As the computer market changed in the 1980s. XCON was originally written in a propriet ry language called OPS5. there was no architectural conexperimental. The average number of condition (the "if" portion is 6. BENEFITS XCON plays a strategic role for DEC. Massive technologic I change creates many and sometimes severe challen es. DEC found tself facing a number of other issues. There are additional "indirect" users of these systems through automated linkages to other software systems (both traditional and expert systems) that depend on the configuration information supplied. over 350 programs and 50. and are n t easily connected to existing business system data fl ws or databases. lower costs. Because of XCON. Often they are hard to maintain. There is no need for independent assembly. The average number of action elements "then" portion) i 4. th yare not published. DEC was ready.each has different needs and takes a different perspective on the configuration information provided. a d disassembly before shipping to the customer. possibly consolidating it with existing equipment already installed. etc.

C3 and there is no unconfigured disk which sits on the idc bus. The location needs to be mark placed there. Comments IF C 1 The current step in the configuration process involves mounting options in containers. Inc. Other rules will dete the exact cable(s). in case there s insufficient of them. A3 and create a connection relationship between the disk and its controller.B~yond. This condition is used to distin uish the group of rules that can potentially activate. this rule will This identifies the type and qua tity of cable needed for this particular disk/controller combi ation. Adapted from Judith Bacharat and Elliot Soloway. Disks assigned to controllers th t are closest to be placed first. FOrt of the activity of this rule is to determine There may be several possibiliti s. This ensures that any spaces a propriate for disks in this type of cabinet will be filled befl re the rule can activate. vaxllnS2. specifying the identifying information for the disk and cabinet as well as the location of the placement. This identifies the appropriate c ntroller. Another indication that the acti Ities to be performed by this rule have not occurred. C4 CS and there is no unconfigured rl 02-type disk assigned to a controller that is placed closer to the cpu than the controller assigned to the aforementioned disk. and there has been no connection made between the disk to be configured and anything else. cabinet. controller. C8 and there is a controller to which the disk to be configured has been pre-asslgned and which sits on a unibus.: Reprmted by permnston. This establishes the connection controller. This indicates that some of the ctivities that perform have not yet occurred. Association for Computing Machinery. C9 and there is a requirement to cable the controller to a disk whose type and quantity of cable match one of the possibilities specified for the disk. and there is an unconfigured rl02-type disk which needs to mount inside a cabinet and whose pre-assigned controller sits on a unibus and it is the first disk assigned.------------~~~ 'IlIbl. o'connor. C6 C7 and there is a requirement to cable the disk to be configured to a controller. C pynght 1989." Communications of the ACM (March 1989). "Expert Systems for Configuration at Digi.4 Rule Name: R 1a-unmounted-ubx-optlons SAMPLE RULES FROM XCON. fully specifying the identifying information for the disk. and the type and quantity of the cable to be used for the connection. An "h9643" is one vari rule does not apply. This condition ensures that the Ie will not activate before all disks on an idc bus have been onfigured. to the cpu need capacity for all that cabling. and there is a description for the capacity of a disk cabinet. whose name is not "h9643". Case Study I 625 . A2 and update the top space in the cabinet to be used. vaxS650.tal: Xcon and . This identifies the properties re uired of an appropriate disk to be configured by this rule. "The Engineering of Econ" In Virginia E. C2 and the system being configured is not a vax II nso. C10 and there has been no connection created yet to this controller from any disk. This identifies a special type of disks. ell C12 and there are no unused disk spaces in any unibus cabinet. This establishes the placement so that nothing else will be tween the disk and its ine the length and choose f the disk in the cabinet. A4 and create a containing relationship between the disk and the cabinet. Barker and en~iS E. C13 and there is an unconfigured disk cabinet. forementioned cabinet where placed. This identifies an appropriate c configured will be placed by th This identifies a location in the the disk to be configured can the top because of the remova abinet that can only contain ion of a cabinet to which the binet in which the disk to be rule. ("Disk" actually means "disk dave") . vaxllnS5. orvaxS600. AS and create labels for the output diagram showing the disk within the cabinet for both the skyline view of the cabinet layout and the detailed view of the particular cabinet. This rule is not applicable to th se types of hardware systems. '7. This ensures that the output di gram will display this information correctly. It needs to be on Ie medium. C14 and the top space available for disk placement is unused. THEN A 1 mark the disk configured.

manufacturing. and new demands are being placed on the system. The system is so complex that even experienced software engineers require a long training period. Extending and refini g the system. deliver the budget and protect from enemie . An Examlnan n of the Impact of Expert Systems on the Firm: The Case of XCON. and a whole new database defined. Sponsor: Business p ople who want to solve problems and can get things d ne. and software systems integration ngineers who develop the overall software and hardw re foundation. sometimes in unpredictable ways. it is p ssible to develop systems capable of saving millions of dol ars and providing a strategic platform for the corporatio . Program manager: n integration role. Experts and users: ople who provide domain knowledge and insig t into the business problem. As computer architectures move away from the single computer and toward clusters of machines and networks of components. The only exception is that the technology i less settled.igit . And the business being serv d will itself often change greatly as a result of the expe system.000 rules change because of changes in marketing. Each year about 40 percent of the 18.~ohn J. Svlokia. New types of users with new perspectives generate new requirements that were not foreseen. 5 (Ju e 1990). Testing Testing poses difficult issues in expert systems. "Expert Systems for C<:>nfigu~~tion at D. Before a system like XCON can help a company. and kept memory resident. when plant technicians began using XCON configuration diagrams as the official document from which to construct a computer system. you luation in 1979 and so you cannot et will change or that the 29 growth will continue. Barker and Dennis E. CSDC has learned to appreciate the many different kinds of roles involved in building a complex system like XCON. They must have strong connecti ns with sponsors. the configuration options have exploded. In this time. Major and minor new products are always being introduced. Delivering the syste Evaluating the syste . with multiple indices to speed processing. Case Study Questions 1. D C's experience indicates that once the managerial and tec nical problems are solved or at least addressed. you have to readjust tests. and engineering. O'Connor. and predictable. define and C was taking when it began this the CEO at that time.1 XCON and Beyond. management must first determine that the problem to be solved is appro cost) is worth it. The business pro lems are not often well understood when compared o. Some of the key roles are as follows: The team has found th delivering expert systems resembles traditional systems development. MIS Quarterly 14. with 25 to 125 fields per part. how would you prepare for and anticipate this problem? With your project team (US~ several of your classmates). The databases are so large that they are compiled. filled by a person with a keen nse of the business rather than a technical focus. an accounting system. Human Resource and Organizational Challenges Over the years. compressed." Communications of the ACM (March 1989). reliable. Why do major technology projects like XCON result in such significant. The learning curve for new developers is about 12 months. A quantify the risk D project. unforeseen organizational changes? If you were the corporate sponsor of a project of this type at its beginning. who develop the kn wledge base. These tasks are the following: • • • • Defining and redefining the system. • • • Development Tas s The development of the e expert systems has spanned over ten years. Sources: Virginia E. no. The original "working diagram" had to be more carefully constructed. However. . Champion: Executive with strategic vision and a knowledge of what t e technology can do. What is correctness? Can we differentiate between optimal solutions and workable solutions? What about where experts disagree? What about the situation where the system comes up with the right answer for the wrong reasons? Expansion The uses and users of XCON have changed over the years. how would k against the size of the problem jected benefits? Remember.000 parts. say. CSDC has gained considerable understanding of a I phases of the life cycle of production quality expert s stems. Technical team: Com osed of knowledge engineers. The XCON team developed a general model f expert systems development based on four major ta ks. • • Maintenance Maintainability is a critical issue. new code for diagram creation had to be written. Can you evaluate XCON as if it were a human? As the system improves over time. define your goals for this aspect of the project. If you wer you evaluate the rl and against the pr are making this ev know that the mar percent annualize riate and that the risk (including well as you can.In 1989 there were 5 databases in XCON containing information on 30. 2. a whole new set of requirements was generated. For instance. 626 I Chapter 17 Artificial Intelligence .