U.L.C.C. in the 1970s

U.L.C.C. Building

The University of London Computer Centre (ULCC) was established in 1968 to provide a central computer service for the University of London based on CDC mainframes. Initially, a CDC 6600 formed the heart of the service. Later a 6400 and Cyber 72 were added to support some interactive access and networking. In 1972, a CDC 7600 was added and ULCC became a "regional service" for universities in the South East of England.

This "CDC era" came to an end in 1982/3 when the CDC equipment was replaced with an Amdahl V470 IBM compatible mainframe running MVS front-ending a Cray-1S/1000 (running COS). I recall the change to the Amdahl was quite unpopular with users at the time. With this equipment, ULCC became a U.K. national resource for vector supercomputing. The Cray was later upgraded to a Cray-1S/2200 and finally a Cray-XMP/28. The "Cray era" came to an end in about 1991/2.

Cray XMP at U.L.C.C. in the late 1980s

ULCC then continued to provide a high performance computing service for the University based on Convex machines (running Unix) until around 1996.

Today ULCC provides expertise in digital data preservation, infra-structure services in the form of a data center for use by educational institutions and businesses, expertise in networking and in educational software (virtual learning environments and electronic student portfolios). The current ULCC website can be found here.

I have two "artifacts" from the "CDC era" of ULCC here:
  • A scan of the "ULCC User Guide" as it was in about 1980 (in PDF format). The User Guide consists of a large number of "ULCC Bulletins" written in the 1970s. These describe just about every aspect of ULCC at the time that might be relevant to a user of its services. Included are quite complete descriptions of the hardware configuration and available software. ULCC was a "batch production shop" primarily and the high level languages provided reflect that - the advice was to use Fortran unless you had a very good reason to do otherwise. Algol 60 was also available, as was COMPASS (of course) and LISP 1.5 (either in batch (!) or via the quite limited interactive service on the 6400). Before 1980 Algol 68 must have become available (I used it quite a lot in 1979-80) although the User Guide explicitly states only Algol 60 was supported. Interestingly, Imperial College (part of the University of London) operated its own CDC based computer service at that time and it had a much wider range of languages available and a much greater emphasis on providing an interactive service (which worked amazingly well as I recall - it was possible to be working quite happily when sharing the machine with 150 other users!). I.C. used NOS/BE and NOS rather than SCOPE as ULCC did.
  • Information on the DIMFILM graphics package written by Dr. John Gilbert of ULCC to drive a Calcomp 1670 microfilm recorder and later re-written for the "Cray era" to drive a Dicomed D48C colour film recorder. Using source code supplied by Dr. Gilbert and Dr. Adrian Clark of Essex University, I "reconstructed" a working version of DIMFILM for (emulated) CDC mainframes under NOS and for Linux. The "reconstruction" was necessitated by the disappearence of the original font files, which I replaced with Hershey fonts (with some loss of functionality). Although the DIMFILM software is not available at this site, the manual is available here and some more information about its "reconstruction" with examples of its output is available here.

The provision of national level high performance computing for academia has moved away from London with the U.K. National Supercomputing Service being based around the HECToR machine at Edinburgh. This is a Cray XE6 with a theoretical peak performance of 800Tflops, which came in at 35 in the November 2012 Top500 supercomputer list. Other U.K. academic computer facilites include "DIRAC", also at Edinburgh (IBM BlueGene/Q - 23 in the Top500) and "BlueJoule" at Daresbury (also an IBM BlueGene/Q - 16 in the Top500 list).

In addition to the (then) world class high performance computers at U.L.C.C. in the CDC era, there were the film recorders noted above. These were effectively another "national resource", with the only comparable machines available to academia at the time being the Stromberg-Carlson SC4020 and, later, the III FR-80 at the Atlas Computer Laboratory (later Rutherford-Appleton Laboratory). I became very familiar with the Dicomed D48C in a very different context from U.L.C.C. as it was the main output device at Electronic Arts (not the huge games company, but a pioneering British computer animation house) and Amazing Array Productions (the successor to Electronic Arts). A rather poor picture of the Dicomed is shown below (which I took in 1990, just before AAP closed down) with a picture from an ad for the Calcomp 1670 from 1970 (and which is very much of its era!).

Film Recorders Used at U.L.C.C. -- The Calcomp 1670 and Dicomed D48C (neither the ones at U.L.C.C.!)

It is hard to believe how rare and expensive facilities to record moving images generated by computer were until quite recently. Now we can output to any number of video container formats and standard disks are quite fast enough to replay "flipbooks" of individual image files at real time rates (at quite decent resolutions too). Before the late 1990's, though, seriously "big iron" was required.

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