Tandem Computers
August 26, 2015 12:57 AM   Subscribe

Remembering Tandem Computers: "Tandem was an archetype Silicon Valley company with stock options, an emphasis on taking chances, a recognition that sometimes the answer lies in a place where no one else has thought to go." The company was founded in 1974 by Jimmy Treybig. Though largely forgotten today, Tandem's surviving legacy is the NonStop line of servers, now owned by Hewlett-Packard.
posted by DrAmerica (20 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
In the interest of disclosure: my father spent many years working for Tandem but left after the merger with Compaq.
posted by DrAmerica at 1:05 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sun doesn't exist anymore?
posted by persona au gratin at 1:58 AM on August 26, 2015

Sun doesn't exist anymore?
posted by persona au gratin at 1:58 AM on August 26 [+] [!]

Sadly, sun is now just a brand of oracle. They mostly bought it for java, but the x86-64 sunfire servers live on (mostly as a a part of Exalogic/Exadata, which are linux compute nodes with a solaris storage server attached, essentially), and they're still attempting to make sparc a thing again with T5/M5 and Supercluster.
posted by jaymzjulian at 3:05 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

1993: In an effort to save costs — at least symbolically — Tandem’s Friday afternoon beer busts end

An infallible sign of the End Times, in my experience.

Tandem had a curious connection to UK computing. It co-founded - and I think eventually bought out - Anamartic, the Sinclair Research company that had developed wafer-scale integration, where a wafer full of chips isn't diced but instead sets up interconnections between working circuits. That was originally the idea of one Ivor Catt, who was (I think still is) a maverick inventor/theoretician who was (and perhaps still is) a gadfly on the buttocks of amplifier designers and physicists...
posted by Devonian at 6:47 AM on August 26, 2015

A summer internship at Tandem in 1992 was my introduction to Silicon Valley work and culture. And yeah that could be cynical about all the things we don't like about it now but at that stage in my young life it (and the overall experience of living here for the summer) was personally transformative.
posted by stevil at 7:07 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I had friends who worked at Tandem; in its time it was a pretty neat place. There was a lot of experimentation with parallel architectures in this era, and most of those companies are dead. Cray got bought by SGI and then sorta reformed independently when SGI went broke, but is a shadow of its former self. I did a lot of work on Sequent machines in the early 90s, they were really pioneering, but sort of fizzled in the market and the remnants were picked up by IBM.

In the meantime your average 2015 consumer PC has a little card in it with 1000 CPUs running in parallel at 1GHz, and all people do with it is play Candy Crush with some slightly fancier pixel lighting.
posted by Nelson at 7:33 AM on August 26, 2015 [6 favorites]

I've worked with a former Tandem people over the years here in Austin, and Jimmy Treybig was installed as CEO of the first-gen tech boom startup that I worked for in the late 90s before it got sold for an obscene amount of money.

If I review resumes of software people who've been in Austin a long time, there's a distinct pattern if they go back before 1997 or so:

Late 90s: worked for one of several first-gen internet boom Austin startups: ICQ, Trilogy and its cohorts, Vignette, etc.
Early/mid 90s: worked for Tivoli and made some money when it got sold to IBM
Earlier: Tandem
posted by tippiedog at 7:44 AM on August 26, 2015

Disappointed this thread is not about awkwardly joined-together computers designed for two.
posted by zchyrs at 7:56 AM on August 26, 2015 [4 favorites]

(The current SPARC systems from Sun Oracle are actually really nice.)
posted by wenestvedt at 7:56 AM on August 26, 2015

So has anyone actually programmed a NonStop machine? What's it like?

It always sounded to me like some unholy combination of a full IDE that produced assembler code or something. Or is there enough abstraction that developers never see that tight integration?
posted by wenestvedt at 8:00 AM on August 26, 2015

Wow, I was just thinking about Tandem last night.

Ok, full disclosure - I was actually thinking about time from my first job after college, at Motorola, and recalling how part of the iDEN infrastructure I worked on was switching over to Tandem machines from whatever it was on before. That's the extent of my knowledge of Tandem as a company - that it was a brand name on some big iron that the team's software was running on.
posted by evilangela at 8:08 AM on August 26, 2015

I remember Tandem because I worked for their first startup competitor in the early 80s. The idea behind Tandem was to duplicate hardware so that you had a fresh component (running in "tandem" with it) to take over in the event of a board failure. Any company that would lose significant money if there was a computer crash (e.g. stock traders) owned Tandem machines, which were expensive. Our startup wanted to use the new inexpensive microcomputers that weren't available when Tandem started out and implement crash recovery in software rather than in hardware. We also wanted to use a Unix interface (Tandem had their own proprietary OS) and make the system modular.

In short, we wanted to solve a lot of problems which really didn't matter to the big Tandem users who didn't care what their systems cost because their core business, finance, considered computing overhead as a negligible fraction of their expenses.

In the end, the only thing not forgotten about our startup was our most famous employee.
posted by Obscure Reference at 8:48 AM on August 26, 2015 [2 favorites]

I used to deliver the SJ Mercury (actually it was the afternoon News) to the Tandem main reception.

Full circle, life complete. Time for an apricot.... Oh...
posted by humboldt32 at 9:19 AM on August 26, 2015


God, I remember going to an information session for then in 99 or 00. The drones went on about how awesome it was that everything was available on the campus and that they rarely left.
posted by MikeKD at 9:37 AM on August 26, 2015

I was a developer at a bank that used it to run our EFT switch , our model used MIPS CPU's but they were thinking about DEC Alpha's before the Compaq takeover when they went Itanuim.

CPU and Storage could do hotswapping on the fly without killing a process hence the non stop nommicker.

OS was called Guardian and reminded me of a typical mainframe OS with no GUI or IDE but had a vi like editor

Tandem had their own programming language called TAL (Tandem Application Language) (a mashup of C,Cobol and Pascal) and the OS had a built in SQL system database.
posted by tibby.dude at 9:52 AM on August 26, 2015

There was a NonStop on display at the Deutsches Technikmuseum (or whatever it's actually called) in Berlin.

It had a sign on it in German saying that the exhibit was non-operative pending repairs. I suspect it's difficult to get parts for the things these days.

The mechanical Zuse Z1 was in full operating condition.
posted by rum-soaked space hobo at 10:22 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I worked for a smaller competitor in the fault tolerant / high availability market back in the day. Our sales guys were always going head to head with Tandem and hated them. But on the technical side, we were on good terms with the Tandem field engineers. I worked at two customer sites that had our hardware as well as Tandem stuff, and we all had expense accounts for "customer training events" so we'd take turns every month inviting each other to a "business luncheon and training" at the local watering hole at 3pm on a Friday. That fun ended when they were bought by Compaq, it was the Tandem guys who called the new parent company Tampax (sounds close enough to Tandem + Compaq, that was the joke anyhow).
posted by peeedro at 11:42 AM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

Tandem Computers Unplugged - A People's History by Gaye I. Clemson
posted by Apocryphon at 5:29 PM on August 26, 2015

God, I remember going to an information session for then in 99 or 00. The drones went on about how awesome it was that everything was available on the campus and that they rarely left.

Man, I remember reading about them in a tech management course - "Insanity Inc." - sounds like they prototyped awful SV bubble startup culture in Austin and before the current bubble.
posted by Apocryphon at 5:40 PM on August 26, 2015 [1 favorite]

I was a sysadmin briefly of a tandem nonstop system. Huge beast. Duplicate everything plus large internal battery packs. It was highly resistant to being turned off or perturbed from its tasks. I felt it earned the name.
posted by ead at 6:04 PM on August 26, 2015

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