The world’s biggest non-IBM IBM network

Nobody much remembers it now, but 40 years ago Australia built one of the world’s largest computer networks. In 1981 Australia’s Department of Social Security (DSS) began planning an ambitious network to connect all of its 210 Australian offices in real time.

The plan was for a mainframe in each capital city, minicomputers in each DSS office, and thousands of colour terminals for DSS staff, along with a substantial amount of data storage. Requests for proposals were sent to all major vendors, with a requirement that much of the hardware be locally built. Vendors were given six months to respond, and it then took the DSS a year to evaluate the proposals.

It made its decision and placed its orders in March 1983.DSS let contracts worth $234 million, an enormous sum at the time and Australia’s largest computer deal to date. The biggest component, $63 million, went to Wang for hundreds of minicomputers and thousands of terminals, while IBM-compatible supplier Amdahl got a $24 million order for seven mainframes. StorageTek got $15 million for disk and tape drives. Systems integrator was leading Australian services company Computer Power.Big vendors in the 1980s, gone soon after.The most remarkable thing about the enormous system was that it ran a networking protocol from IBM called Systems Network Architecture (SNA), but there was no IBM equipment on the network. Big Blue received barely $1 million from the contract for its MVS/XA mainframe operating system on the Amdahls. It was at the time one the world’s largest SNA networks, and easily the largest not to be running on IBM equipment.

It was a very big deal for Wang, which had established itself in Australia as something of a minicomputer supplier but which was not regarded as one of the major vendors. In the year the order was placed, and in the following year, Wang Australia accounted for more than one quarter of the vendor’s total global revenues.

As part of the deal Wang set up a $3 million manufacturing facility in Canberra to make 7500 colour workstations. It also had to develop a significant amount of software to get its VS minicomputers to talk to the Amdahl mainframes over SNA. Wang did not initially have the appropriate networking software, but successfully built it.

The database for the new system Model 204 from US vendor CCA. Model 204 was a unique ‘multivalue’ database with a built-in programming and application development environment. The multivalue data model, which allows for multidimensional tables, was first developed in the early 1960s by Don Nelson and Dick Pick, programmers at giant US defence contractor TRW. Dick Pick subsequently used the concept for his modestly named Pick operating environment, which became very popular in Australia.

Model 204 was chosen because of its ability to store vast amounts of data and of handle very high transaction loads. It was at the time popular in the US Defense Department. Computer Power also sold Model 204 to Telstra and Australia’s Department of Defence.

Those systems were subsequently replaced by relational databases. Model 204 still runs at the Department of Human Services in Canberra, the DSS’s descendant, where it runs the Centrelink payments system. It is the last production version of Model 204 in existence anywhere in the world.

Even after Computer Power stopped distributing the software and it ceased to exist as a company, CCA never set up an Australian office, flying in staff from Massachusetts as necessary. The replacement of Model 204 at Centrelink has been suggested for twenty years now, but the size and the cost of the systems redevelopment project has seen the idea repeatedly postponed.

The Stratplan deal attracted significant controversy at the time, mainly because of its sheer size. Planning had begun under the Fraser Liberal government, but by the time the system was implemented Bob Hawkes’ Labor Government was in power in Canberra.

The Opposition members of the Joint Parliamentary Accounts Committee criticised it within a year of its implementation for running substantially over budget, though this turned out to be mistaken. There were some problems, but the system came in almost on time and almost on budget. It was largely completed by the end of 1986.

Stratplan was enormous. It involved Amdahl mainframes in Canberra and every state capital, and 275 Wang VS minicomputers, at least one in every DSS office in Australia. The Wang machines were connected to the mainframes by 9.6 Kbps data lines supplied by Telecom Australia (later to be renamed Telstra).

The Stratplan hardware infrastructure lasted ten years. It was replaced in the mid-90s with 20,000 personal computers in 320 DSS offices connected directly to just two Amdahl mainframes in Canberra.
Improvements in computer networking, and in the power of PCs, had made the minicomputers redundant. The end of Stratplan was an example, on a large scale, of what was happening across the computer industry in the 1990s.

Like other minicomputer suppliers, Wang declined in that decade and disappeared altogether in 1999. Amdahl was absorbed in 1997 by its parent Fujitsu, and StorageTek also disappeared when it was acquired by Sun Microsystems in 2005.