Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Apollo 11 Guidance Computer - Has software moved on?

21st July 1969 was a big day for computers! Apollo 11 made history when the first man landed on the moon. Migration Solutions MD, Alex Rabbetts, has been taking a look back at the technology in use at the time and how it has evolved today.

The Apollo Guidance Computer, (Apollo 11 actually had two - one in the command module and one in the lunar module), was very advanced for its time. It had 2k of memory, 32k of storage and a processing speed of 1.024 MHz and it managed to guide Apollo 11 all the way to the moon and back.

Let's put this in context - it had 2kb of memory ... the machine used to write this article has 2.75GB of memory. That's 1,441,792 times more memory! It had 32kb of storage ... the machine used to write this article has 139GB. That's 4,554,752 times more storage! It had a processing speed of 1.024MHz ... the machine used to write this article has 3.4GHz of processing speed. That's 3,320 times faster!

So, what can be concluded from this is that a machine with over a million times less memory, almost 4.5 million times less storage and a processing speed that is 3,400 times slower than the PC in my office managed to fly man to the moon and back! But then my PC does run Windows ...

Taking a quick look at the Microsoft support website and I find the minimum requirements for running Windows XP:

At least 64MB of memory (128 MB is recommended) - 32,768 times more memory that the Apollo Guidance Computer
At least 1.5 GB of storage - 49,152 times more storage than the Apollo Guidance Computer
A 233 MHz processor (300 MHz is recommended) - 233 times faster than the Apollo Guidance Computer

The question therefore must be ... such a low spec computer such as the Apollo Guidance System is capable of flying man to the moon and back, what is my PC with such a vastly superior specification capable of doing?

One could be forgiven for wondering exactly how this relates to data centres! The answer really is in that very large storage number. The IDC estimates that by the end of 2010 the amount of data storage worldwide will reach 1 zettabyte (1,180,591,620,717,410,000,000 bits of data) and it will continue to rise at an exponential rate. The recent Digital Britain report supports this view of exponential rise in the storage of digital media. All this data has to be stored somewhere ... much of it in data centres.

Data Centres require huge amounts of power to drive the storage equipment used for all this data that is produced. There are all sorts of drives to reduce carbon emissions from data centres, ranging from The Green Grid, the EU Code of Conduct to the Carbon Reducation Commitment. Greater efficiency in data centres is the right way to go, but we mustn't forget the software. 1.5 gigabytes just to install an operating system is a massive amount of storage when compared to that of the Apollo Guidance Computer - the real question is whether this vast increase in the amount of code required simply to run the computer is so much better than the system used to send the first man to the moon!

And one final thought ... if we were told that we were to fly to the moon today and that the computer that would get us there and back was running Windows XP or Vista, would we still want to go?

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