UNIX and Bull

written by Jean Bellec for FEB.

Bull, like many "old" computer companies, faced from the early 1980s the dilemma of "open systems". Bull had a "proprietary systems" culture and had a business model oriented towards being the sole supplier of its customers needs. Engineers in all laboratories were used to design all the parts of a computer system, excluding the elementary electronic components. Even when Bull adopted a system from another laboratory, the whole system or software was revisited to be "adapted" to specific manufacturing requirements or to specific customer needs? The advent of open systems, where the specifications and the implementations were to be adopted as such, was a cultural shock that had since traumatized the company.

The new management of Groupe Bull in the 1980s was convinced of the eventual domination of open systems. Jacques Stern, the new CEO, even prophesized in 1982 the decline and the fall of IBM under the pressure of the governments' backed open standards.

The Bull strategy was then to  phase out the various proprietary product lines very progressively and to take positions in the promising open systems market.
Many UNIX projects have been considered in the various components of what was now part of Groupe Bull: Thomson had concluded agreements with Fortune, Transac Alcatel was considering its own line (based on NS3032), CNET (the engineering arm of France Télécom) had developed its own architecture on the base of Motorola 68000 (SM-90)...

The take-over of R2E in the late 1970s had given to Bull-Micral a sizeable position in the PC market. But, at that time, many in the company, did not envision the overwhelming success of the personal computers. So, Bull decided to invest in the more promising minicomputer market based on the UNIX operating system.

Bull developed an UNIX strategy independently from Honeywell's. Honeywell did start a port of UNIX on a customized 386 PC and reoriented Honeywell Italia towards a 68000 based UNIX computer. However,  plans were exchanged between the companies and did not differ significantly, while products were separately developed until the eventual take-over of Honeywell by Bull..

Open Software

UNIX was, at that time, a property of AT&T, then also a potential competitor for existing computer companies. So, Bull undertook a lobbying effort both in the standards organizations (ECMA, ISO) and at the European Commission to establish UNIX as a standard not controlled by AT&T. This lobbying effort succeeded in establishing X-Open standards, initially for Europe and eventually backed by U.S. manufacturers.

X-Open standardized UNIX API (Application Programming Interfaces), an obvious desire for software houses. But, that objective was not sufficient for a hardware or a basic software manufacturer. So, when approached by Digital Equipment and IBM in 1988, Bull supported with enthusiasm the OSF Open Systems Foundation that had the purpose of developing an alternative source to AT&T supplied UNIX source code. An OSF laboratory was installed in Boston with a subsidiary lab in Grenoble. Bull enlisted the support of OSF from a majority of X-Open backers.
That was the climax of Unix wars: while AT&T got the support of Sun Microsystems, of the majority of Japanese suppliers -including NEC-, the OSF clan gathered H-P, DEC, IBM and even Microsoft that planned the support of X-Open source code in the, still secret, Windows/NT.
IBM had initially granted the AIX know-how to OSF, but a chasm progressively appeared between the Austin AIX developers and the Cambridge OSF. Eventually, OSF abandoned the idea to use AIX as the base of their operating system and went their own way.
When eventually delivered, the first version of OSF was adopted by DEC alone. IBM, H-P were sticking to their own version of UNIX.

In the mean time, Bull and Honeywell engineers had ported license free old versions of UNIX on some mainframes architectures: Level 6, DPS-4, Intel PC and DPS-7. Those implementations were not fully X-Open standardized and their distribution was quite limited.

UNIX Hardware

UNIX was the only successful example of an architecture independent operating system. In the early 1980s, that independence and the related peripheral subsystems openness was considered as satisfying customers. Architects of all companies expected to remain free to invent new instruction sets and the early 1980s saw a blooming of new RISC architectures increasing processor performances and occupying many engineers to port "standard" software to those architectures.

The initial entry of Bull in the UNIX market was to adopt the French PTT CNET's platform known as SM-90. That platform was based on the Motorola MC-68000 microprocessor for which Thomson (future SGI) got a manufacturing license

In parallel, Bull in its Echirolles center and Honeywell in Boston and Pregnana . developed several versions of 68000 based UNIX systems. After the purchase of Honeywell computers assets by Bull, those systems were consolidated into DPX/2 product line.

Jacques Stern, convinced on the superiority of RISC architectures and having failed to convince his engineers to build the right one, decided in 1984 to invest into Ridge Computers, a  Santa Clara start-up founded in 1980 by ex-Hewlett Packard employees. Ridge systems were licensed to Bull and sold by Bull as SPS-9. However Ridge entered a financial crisis in1986-1988 and, after new capital injections from Bull and others, eventually vanished.

Going back to Silicon Valley to shop for another RISC architecture in 1988, Bull decided to license the upper range MIPS system and to move its own MC-68000 products to the soon to be announced MOS technology MIPS microprocessors. MIPS looks very promising in 1990: its architecture was adopted by Digital, by Siemens, by Silicon Graphics, by Nintendo and others. However, the multiprocessor version of MIPS chip was delayed and the company entered a financial crisis, ended by its absorption by Silicon Graphics.

Bull decided to abandon MIPS and went shopping for yet another partner. Both Hewlett-Packard and IBM courted Bull in 1991 for adopting their architecture. The French prime minister supported publicly Hewlett-Packard, while Bull's Francis Lorentz and the French ministry of industry were leaning towards IBM.
Eventually, in January 1992, Bull choose IBM. It adopted the PowerPC RISC architecture, introduced the RS/6000 and entered a cooperative work with IBM's Austin's laboratory to develop a multi-processor computer running IBM's AIX operating software. That project, code-named Pegasus, that involved the Bull laboratories of Pregnana and Grenoble, gave birth to the Escala product line.
The PowerPC architecture was completed by the adoption of Motorola's workstations and small servers by Bull as Estrella systems.
In the upper range, Bull attempted unsuccessfully a cooperation with IBM in SP-x Parallel Systems. It did not succeed also in its attempt in 1994 to repackage Escala as a main frame priced system under the name Sagister.

Escala and AIX succeeded satisfactorily. But customers switching to UNIX from mainframes wanted the price of their systems low enough to offset their conversion  costs and were very reluctant to buy the kind of hardware profitable to the manufacturer.

In addition to maintaining its AIX-PowerPC based Escala systems, Bull had to introduce also in 1996 a line of open systems, designed by NEC, based on Intel Pentium microprocessors, and running Microsoft Windows/NT.

Conclusion (not  a definitive one)

The conversion of the industry to the Open Systems has been much slower than predicted in the early 1980s.

The large systems customers were reluctant to move, perhaps afraid of Y2K problems. The lower part of the computer world adopted the Intel-Microsoft standard and their success allowed many companies to take over the small servers market with Windows/NT.

Bull, when defining its UNIX strategy, was not expecting that the future of UNIX might reside in the open version (Linux) designed by a then obscure Finnish university programmer running on PC hardware with an early 1980s architecture.

 68000 products (Honeywell DPX, SM-90 - Bull SPS-7, DPX-2)
 MIPS alliance
 PowerPC based servers

 Intel based servers

Bull UNIX contributors


Revision : 20 février 2003.