When Whitechapel Computer Works (since renamed Whitechapel Workstations) launched its original MG-1 out of its then-unfashionable base in the East End of London in September 1984, the idea had been to fill the gap between personal computers and scientific machines with a National Semiconductor 32016-based virtual memory graphics workstation priced not far above an IBM […]
When Whitechapel Computer Works (since renamed Whitechapel Workstations) launched its original MG-1 out of its then-unfashionable base in the East End of London in September 1984, the idea had been to fill the gap between personal computers and scientific machines with a National Semiconductor 32016-based virtual memory graphics workstation priced not far above an IBM Personal AT. Costs were reduced by using a single board VLSI design and personal computer-style engineering and manufacturing techniques, and the MG-1 was one of the first workstations to include an AT bus, now a common feature amongst competitors. Ever hungry But with Personal Computer users ever hungry for more power, and the prospects of high volume, low-end workstation sales becoming more evident, the MG-1’s chosen market began to be squeezed from both above and below. In 1987, a small company such as Whitechapel can only watch from the sidelines as the established workstation vendors such as Sun and Apollo prepare to fight it out with the new generation of 80386-based personal computers. A change of strategy, originating from the time in July 1986 when Whitechapel went briefly into receivership, only to be refinanced by its principal venture capital investors, is unveiled by the company this month in a bid to retain its competitiveness. Whitechapel has sidestepped the fierce low-end price cutting by launching a new mid-range workstation, the W-10. To be launched at the end of the month, this is the first of Whitechapel’s new generation of machines, and uses the RISC architecture R2000 chip set with integral floating point accelerators from MIPS Computer Systems of Sunnyvale, California, giving a claimed performance of around 10 MIPS for an entry-level price of UKP20,000. MIPS has recently unbundled its processor technology and put prices in line with Intel’s 80386 microprocessors, allowing firms such as Whitechapel to buy chip-level products and design the architecture themselves. This gives a certain degree of microprocessor – independence, protecting them from unforseen swings in the marketplace. MIPS’ reduced instruction set CPUs have been used as the basis for machines from Prime, Silicon Graphics, Cadnetix, and Recal Redac in recent months, and MIPS is currently carrying out an aggressive software program in the US. The W-10 incorporates CPU, floating point co-processor, memory management unit, instruction+data cache and write buffers contained on Whitechapel’s own-designed modular board. W-10 workstations will come in either desktop or deskside versions with 16 or 20 high resolution – 1,280 by 1,024 – colour monitors, and again include an AT Bus for standard add-on boards such as modems and frame grabbers. Hard disks in capacities of 95Mb, 170Mb and 320Mb are available with an MS-DOS- compatible floppy disk drive. 60Mb back-up via tape cartridge is available as an option, and the standard memory of 8Mb can be expanded up to 40Mb. Whitechapel’s new found commercial attitude is shown by its willingness to adopt standards: both Unix 4.3BSD and Unix System V can be supported, as can both X-Window from the Massachusetts Intitute of Technology and Sun Microsystems’ NeWs distributed window management. And in case you prefer Whitechapel’s own Oriel windowing system, that’s there as well. The systems can be networked via Ethernet, with support for TCP/IP and Network File System protocols, and there is an on- board Cheapernet transceiver for low-cost local area networks upgradable to Ethernet. The machine has been designed to be as attractive as possible to OEM customers, a strategy that even extends to the packaging – two designs will be produced, one with a standard IBM-type casing, the other with a more individual design for Whitechapel to sell on itself. One of the primary goals set for Whitechapel by its new board in July 1986 was a significant percentage of volume OEM business, an important factor in the future profitability of the company. Accordingly, Whitechapel has been gearing up for OEM deals in both Europe and the US, initially by setting up
a manufacturing agreement with the giant Thomson-CSF, and a third party maintenance agreement with Control Data, both in France. Offices have already been set up in France and Belgium, and more are to follow. There are attractions, according to Malcolm Barnes of Whitechapel, for OEM customers dealing with a small, local equipment supplier – they can deal direct with the system’s engineer at Whitechapel, rather than through a UK or European subsidiary mediating for the American head office. Whitechapel can also offer an OEM customer flexibility to adapt the product to particular requirements. OEM deals from America OEM deals from America sound like an entirely different story, but Whitechapel is in the process of setting up an office, and says it is talking to three US companies (announcements promised at the Computer Graphics Show). Here, the company is targeting those trying to break into European markets that feel a machine of European origins would give them an advantage. The new product, and future systems (more announcements are expected early next year) are designed to fit in with Whitechapel’s distributed graphics networking strategy, announced in June at the European Unix User Show in London, using the standards mentioned above, in particular NFS for the integration of multi-vendor hardware. At the same time, the MG-300S RISC-based compute engine was launched, a box manufactured by MIPS Computer Systems and sold by Whitechapel under an OEM agreement. This, and MIPS’ own recently launched 10 MIPS applications servers, will be recomended by Whitechapel for implementation on workstation networks. What will happen in the workstation market over the next six months is anybody’s guess. Malcolm Barnes points out that so far the workstation price war has been limited to the low-end machines, with manufacturers trying to protect their margins higher up the range. Soon, however, Japanese clone machines will come onto the market, hitting the major manufacturers where it hurts. In a reversal of roles, Sun and Apollo have now become the establishment. Just as they tracked the efforts of minicomputer manufacturers in order to sell into their extensive user bases, so now their own user bases are vulnerable to attack. That’s one area Whitechapel will be looking to when it begins shipping W-10 workstations on the first of January, 1988.