what happened to the minicomputer?

In a presentation by Gordon Bell (formatting his):

Minicomputers (for minimal computers) are a state of mind; the current logic technology, …, are combined into a package which has the smallest cost. Almost the sole design goal is to make the cost low; …. Alternatively stated: the hardware-software tradeoffs for minicomputer design have, in the past, favored software.
Minicomputer may be classified at least two ways:

  • It is the minimum computer (or very near it) that can be built with the state of the art technology
  • It is that computer that can be purchased for a given, relatively minimal, fixed cost (e.g., $10K in 1970.)

Does that still hold? $10k in 1970 dollars is over $61k in 2016 dollars, which would buy a comfortably equipped four-socket brickland (E7 broadwell) server, or two four-socket grantleys (E5 broadwell). We’re at least in the right order-of-magnitude.

Perhaps a better question is whether modern intel xeon platforms (like grantley or upcoming purley) are minimal computers? Bell had midi- and maxicomputer as identified categories past the minicomputer, with a supercomputer at the top.

We are definitely in the favoring-software world — modern x86 is microcoded these days, and microcontrollers are everywhere in modern server designs: power supplies; voltage regulators; fan controllers; BMC. The Xeon itself has the power control unit (PCU), and the chipset has the management engine (ME). Most of these are closed, and not directly programmable by a platform owner. Part of this is security-related — you don’t want an application being able to rewrite your voltage regulator settings or hanging the thermal management functions of your CPU. Part of it is keeping proprietary trade secrets, though. The bringup flow between the Xeon and chipset (ME) is heavily proprietary, and a deliberate decision to not support third-party chipsets by Intel has this continuing to stay in trade secret land.

However, I argue that modern servers have grown to the midi- if not maxicomputer level of complexity. Even in the embedded world, the level of integration on modern ARM parts seems to put most of them in the midicomputer category. Even AVRs seem to be climbing out of the microcomputer level.

On the server side, what if we could stop partitioning into multiple microcontrollers and coalesce their functionality? How minimal could we make a server system and still retain ring 3 ia32e (x64) compatibility? Would we still need the console-in-system BMC? Could a real-time OS on the main CPU handle its own power and thermal telemetry? What is minimally needed for bootstrapping in a secure fashion?

I’ll stop wondering about these things when I have answers, and I don’t see any. So I continue to jump down the platform architecture rabbit hole…

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