A legendary tragic failure, the archetypal Hacker Dream Gone Wrong. Mars was the
code name for a family of PDP-10 compatible computers built by Systems Concepts
(now, The SC Group): the multi-processor SC-30M, the small uniprocessor SC-25M,
and the never-built superprocessor SC-40M. These machines were marvels of
engineering design; although not much slower than the unique Foonly F-1, they
were physically smaller and consumed less power than the much slower DEC KS10 or
Foonly F-2, F-3, or F-4 machines. They were also completely compatible with the
DEC KL10, and ran all KL10 binaries (including the operating system) with no
modifications at about 2--3 times faster than a KL10.
When DEC cancelled the Jupiter project in 1983, Systems Concepts should have
made a bundle selling their machine into shops with a lot of software investment
in PDP-10s, and in fact their spring 1984 announcement generated a great deal of
excitement in the PDP-10 world. TOPS-10 was running on the Mars by the summer of
1984, and TOPS-20 by early fall.
Unfortunately, the hackers running Systems Concepts were much better at
designing machines than at mass producing or selling them; the company allowed
itself to be sidetracked by a bout of perfectionism into continually improving
the design, and lost credibility as delivery dates continued to slip. They also
overpriced the product ridiculously; they believed they were competing with the
KL10 and VAX 8600 and failed to reckon with the likes of Sun Microsystems and
other hungry startups building workstations with power comparable to the KL10 at
a fraction of the price.
By the time SC shipped the first SC-30M to Stanford in late 1985, most customers
had already made the traumatic decision to abandon the PDP-10, usually for VMS
or Unix boxes. Most of the Mars computers built ended up being purchased by
This tale and the related saga of Foonly hold a lesson for hackers: if you want
to play in the Real World, you need to learn Real World moves.
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