VAX Notes remembered


I was surprised and delighted to come across a White Paper called “The Camelot of Collaboration” that documents the use of a now-forgotten technology called VAX Notes within the late-lamented Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC).

Collaboration comes naturally to many today given information presented on blogs, social networking sites such as Facebook, the stream of updates from Twitter, and the wide array of web sites maintained by corporations and individuals to publicize products and causes. In fact, we live in a world where information is available in a bewildering number of sources, should we feel the need to go looking. As always, the problem is to separate out the good information from the misleading, something that has existed since man first started to publish.

But going back into the world of the 1980s, information was not so easy to obtain. Sure, we had books and magazines to read, but the thought of being able to get immediate up-to-date information that could help to resolve a problem just did not exist. Except, of course, inside DEC, where VAX Notes, a collaboration technology made information available to employees around the world as long as they could get to their faithful video terminal and connect to DEC’s internal network (DECnet).

As the white paper tells, in August 1989, some 10,355 VAX Notes conferences were active inside DEC, 390 of which were dedicated to employee interests such as “Good restaurants in the South of France”. But the majority of traffic went into the 9,965 conferences set up to discuss matters relating to DEC technology, such as the inner workings of VAX/VMS, how to best configure TCP/IP services for VAX/VMS, or even how to connect PCs and Macintoshes to VAX servers. The best thing about VAX Notes was the way that the people who engineered products would respond to questions that arose in the field, meaning that someone working in Hong Kong who encountered a problem with a product could ask a question in the appropriate conference at the end of their working day with a real expectation that the question would be answered by engineering in the U.S. by the time they came into work the next day. And if engineering couldn’t answer, some other DEC employee probably would.

None of this seems earth-shattering now, but considering that all of this happened when telephone calls were expensive, the Internet was a loose collection of academic systems connected by dial-up modems, browsers had not yet appeared, and email was restricted to people who required a business reason to be assigned a mailbox. It’s just awesome how far we have come since 1989 and how advanced VAX Notes was at the time.

I have a special reason for remembering VAX Notes in 1989 because I was the project leader for the work done to integrate VAX Notes with ALL-IN-1 Version 2.4 in that period (John Rhoton, who has since gone on to become a well-respected cloud computing strategist, wrote a lot of the code to integrate the two products). Most of the work was done in DEC’s European Technical Center in Sophia-Antipolis, France or the European Office Engineering Team in Turin, Italy and then integrated with the rest of ALL-IN-1 in DEC Park Reading, England. I enjoyed this project enormously because it brought the best internal collaboration tool that DEC could offer to a much wider audience outside the company. Regretfully, neither the native version of VAX Notes nor the integration with ALL-IN-1 really took off outside DEC. I don’t think this was the fault of the technology, but rather that a collaborative ethos did not exist inside other companies in the same way that it did inside DEC.

Another interesting comment from the white paper was that the effect of Windows and Microsoft technology and the growth of the web eventually “gutted the technology infrastructure for collaboration”. Looking back, I think this statement is too strong. A poor PC client for VAX Notes certainly contributed to its demise as more users moved to Windows, but it’s also true that the web offered other sources of information that were became more important as customers moved from proprietary technology to more general standards (think of the transition from DECnet to TCP/IP). In addition, within DEC, there was also the wider use of some other collaborative technology such as email distribution lists and even Exchange public folders (DEC eventually had tens of thousands of public folders, many of which were used for short periods and then left to linger in the public folder hierarchy). Some VAX Notes conferences still persist, not least those offered with a web interface by the Encompass U.S chapter, part of the HP users group, at http://encompasserve.org/anon/htnotes/.

Len Kawell wrote Notes-11 (his LinkedIn profile says that this work was done “in his spare time”) and later worked with Ray Ozzie on Lotus Notes. Notes-11 was then taken on by Benn Schreiber and Peter Gilbert as a “skunk works” project within DEC Central Engineering and resulted in VAX Notes. After the first version of VAX Notes was complete, Benn Schreiber moved to the DECwest group in Seattle to work on the famous PRISM project with Dave Cutler. DEC eventually canned PRISM, Cutler moved to Microsoft (where he is now a Senior Technical Fellow) to create Windows NT, and the rest is history.

The early versions of Lotus Notes traced a direct connection to VAX Notes in not only the name. Think of databases being equivalent to conferences and you see what I mean. Of course, Lotus Domino is much different now than it was in the early days, but a link can still be traced back to VAX Notes in its technical ancestry.

Collaboration was just one of the aspects that made it great to work at DEC in its heyday. It’s just such a pity that DEC came to the end that it did, largely due to some poor strategic decisions by management as well as some “interesting” bets on technical direction. As always, hindsight is everything…

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About Tony Redmond ("Thoughts of an Idle Mind")

Exchange MVP, author, and rugby referee
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12 Responses to VAX Notes remembered

  1. Nigel Dutt says:

    And the other great advantage of VAX Notes, in retrospect, was that since DEC employees were (mostly!) intelligent and polite people, even though robust views were sometimes expressed in Notes conferences, the level of discussion was light years ahead of the sort of obscene, illiterate and just plain stupid comments you see in 99% of open forums on the internet today…..

  2. Graham Pye says:

    I remember there being quite a good PC interface to Notes, although it was a midnight project and hence never got shipped. I spent quite a bit of time and effort trying to get permission for it to be given to DECUS so that they could widen the appeal of the DECUServe forums. I think I still have the kit somewhere…

    To address Nigel’s point (and Tony’s comment) I think we were pretty polite in the technical conferences, and there was the additional control that some were quite rigorously moderated – well the ones that I ran were :-) Outside the technical arena things were little more lively…

  3. As long as you’re tracing lineages, it’s pretty widely acknowledged that the inspiration for Notes-11 was Ken’s exposure to PLATO Notes http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/PLATO_(computer_system)#Online_community

  4. John Corne says:

    Companies these days try to introduce “Knowledge Management” – they even have managers for it. What they never to is create the spirit of co-operation that existed in DEC that allowed the information to be shared. Today, I see lots of cases where “Knowledge is power”, but back then, those who shared the most were the ones looked up to, they had “power”!

    Cheers
    Jc

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  7. Peter Lelie says:

    Remembering good times with DEC. Hard work, lots of fun.
    NOTES was one of my my favorite tools, great knowledge base, covering virtually everything, from technical problem solving to restaurants around Nice and Antibes :-) and jokes… (I liked the Dave Barry articles)

  8. Lee R. says:

    Wow, I don’t even know where to begin.

    I worked at a DEC field office for 18 years… I fondly recall installing the network gear to finally get our office connected to the “EasyNet” (this was in the 80s). Shortly thereafter, during a trip to Maynard, I learned about “Notes” and came back excitedly with a copy of “easynotes.lis” and the location to grab the Notes client that I needed to install on a VAX system in our office.

    It was the most paradigm-changing experience in all of my (now long) IT career – a mere support guy in a remote field office now had full access to the entire range of DEC product engineering, development, support, marketing, etc. for specific products, as well as more general topic notes conferences. I now had a more direct access to incredible resources that not only permitted me to serve our customers more fully and quickly with accurate information, but also made me an informed contributor that had the direct relationships with our customers.

    Today, many would probably scoff at the character-cell access and the simplistic design of the Notes-11/VNotes/VaxNotes/DECnotes software, but I have yet to see it duplicated in terms of the ease of use and the powerful collaboration within DEC that it fostered.

    I consider myself fortunate to have been a part of that effort, and that I was even able to start and moderate a few conferences that was accessed by DEC employees the world over. I was also fortunate to be able to “feel the pulse” of the DEC culture itself with notesfiles such as HUMANE::DIGITAL’s “The DEC Style of Working” of which I visited frequently.

    Lee

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