From Punched Cards to SmartNICs – a Personal Journey Part 1

From Punched Cards to SmartNICs – a Personal Journey Part 1


One of the DriveScale predictions for 2020 is that 2020 is the year of the SmartNIC! But, what is a SmartNIC? In this blog series – covering 7 decades – you’ll learn more than you ever wanted to know about Front-End Processors, er, I mean SmartNICs.  And you’ll see how my personal history with computers is deeply intertwined with the SmartNIC concept.  I’m a huge fan of computing history, a collector, and a pack rat, so there’ll be some interesting illustrations…

Part 1: The 1950s

Computers are older than I am, but only by about 5 years. Since the dawn of computing, computers have been helped out – offloaded – by less expensive devices.  The first computers in the early 50s, like the IBM 701, had so little memory that they were actually not very good at “data processing”, i.e., I/O intensive but compute-light operations.

But for decades before computers, there was sophisticated data processing happening with punched card machines – tabulating, sorting, searching, even some simple arithmetic. So many of the earliest “data c

enters” would use punched card equipment to do the data-intensive things, and reserve the computer for truly CPU intensive things. It wasn’t particularly easy to hook up computers to all these punched card card machines, and for a long time,

a hand-held box of cards held more memory (160K!) than most computers.

My high school district (in the ’70s) had a “data processing” training room fill with punched card equipment, including one actual computer, an IBM 1130.  But most of the rest of the equipment was from the 1940s or 50s and still mostly mechanical.

So computers were really fast at computing, but couldn’t handle much data.  Sound familiar? Today GPUs are way faster than CPUs, but have far less memory.  Is the GPU an accelerator, or is the CPU a front-end processor? All depends on your point of view.

By the late ‘50s, it was common to have two or three computers together – one fast one for computing, and the other(s) for light jobs and I/O versatility. How did they communicate with each other?  Reel-to-reel tape and Sneakernet! (They did have sneakers in the ‘50s, but probably not at work) Each tape was a “batch” of “jobs” for the computer, incoming or outgoing.

This is the first of a 7 part journey. Head over to Part 2 here.

About the Author:

Tom Lyon is a computing systems architect, a serial entrepreneur and a kernel hacker. Prior to founding DriveScale, Tom was founder and Chief Scientist of Nuova Systems, a start-up that led a new architectural approach to systems and networking. Nuova was acquired in 2008 by Cisco, whose highly successful UCS servers and Nexus switches are based on Nuova’s technology. He was also founder and CTO of two other technology companies. Netillion, Inc. was an early promoter of memory-over-network technology. At Ipsilon Networks, Tom invented IP Switching. Ipsilon was acquired by Nokia and provided the IP routing technology for many mobile network backbones. As employee #8 at Sun Microsystems, Tom was there from the beginning, where he contributed to the UNIX kernel, created the SunLink product family, and was one of the NFS and SPARC architects. He started his Silicon Valley career at Amdahl Corp., where he was a software architect responsible for creating Amdahl’s UNIX for mainframes technology. Tom holds numerous U.S. patents in system interconnects, memory systems, and storage. He received a B.S. in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science from Princeton University.

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