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The Big War: Symbolics againts Unix boxes

  Last days I read a lot of messages of people using unix boxes and claiming
that they were both much cheaper than symbolics machines and as powerful as
them. Some unix boxes are really cheaper than lisp machines, but I really
have difficulties to understand how one can find these boxes as powerful as
lisp machines.

  Our lab has 4 Symbolics (2 3650 and 2 3620) runing 7.2 and two SPARCStations
with 8 megs of memory and two disks of 100 megs on each. Thes suns are running
allegro, Sunview or X11 and the composer (the window based tools of franz).
Allegro is also integrated with GNU.

  Our SPARCStations are certainly good enough for teaching and students
projects, and probably for delivery software too, but when I compare them
with lisp machines, I am forced to say that they are much less powerful
and much less comfortable than Symbolics.

  There are a lot of things which make the difference. The simplest one is
that you lose your whole environment each time you log out. Rebuilding it
each morning takes time. Allegro itself is ok, but when used with GNU, the
whole set becomes really slow: a lot of time is spent paging. When, in
addition, X11 is used, it becomes a real catastrophe. A single click on the
mouse causes a 10 seconds paging delay, and the composer is simply unusable
because it keeps paging. All the tools integrated in the composer are also
really primitive, when compared with Symbolics. The availability of the sources
in Lisp machines is also very useful for debugging purposes because it
frequently helped me to explain why my code was false.

  People here also had problems when developping software using dynamic
windows but it however remains that they are really convenient and that
you can rapidly build a user interface as long as you do not want to use
their tricky capabilities. When compared to X11, I would much prefer
to use program frameworks and dynamic windows than trying to program X11.

  Thes UNIX boxes are also not so cheap because you must add a lot of memory,
big internal disks and a disk server to make them usable. So the price
difference not so big. It remains that the hardware maintainance cost of
unix boxes is really much cheaper.

  For the software, what appears to me as the real challenge for Symbolics,
is portability. It is a real necessity that software developped on a Lisp
machine be portable, at a minimal cost, on any highly used plattform like
unix boxes with X Windows. This requires that user interfaces can be
developped on X Windows. This also requires that software developped on
Symbolics can use standard programs, like Oracle or Ingres for example. This
also requires that the documentation of the products developped on Symbolics
be portable. Did anyone hear anything about a standard HyperText format ?

  For the hardware, what appears to me as the real challenge is the competition
with some other lispm manufacturers. I don't know if this is true, and I don't
know if it makes sense, but I heard that an other manufacturer is trying to
design a microprocessor with writable microcode so that the same processor
could be usable for both unix and lisp machines. This would, of course,
decrease a lot the hardware cost.

E. Baechler AI Lab Swiss Federal Inst. of Technology