VAXen and minimal memory (was Re: The PDP11/04 has landed..)

Ethan Dicks ethan.dicks at
Thu Feb 11 11:06:41 CST 2016

On Thu, Feb 11, 2016 at 9:56 AM, Mark Wickens <mark at> wrote:
> It's good to hear that the VAX was a cost-effective solution - there are
> too many stories about how expensive DEC gear was, but I imagine they
> primarily came after PCs started dropping in price.
> On 9 February 2016 at 04:50, Ethan Dicks <ethan.dicks at> wrote:
>> With 8-20 users on 9600 bps terminals, 8MB...
>> All this power for under $5,000 per user, terminal included, years
>> before $5,000 would buy you an IBM 5170 PC-AT.

VAXen weren't exactly cheap (our 11/750 was ordered the week they were
announced and was, I'm told, the first one shipped to the midwest (S/N
BT000354).  ISTR it was $120,000 with 2MB and 2X RK07, then we added a
Systems Industries SI9900 SMD controller and had a 160MB Fuji drive
and a 400+ MB Fuji Eagle.  I don't have the numbers on that, but it
was another $30,000 at least, I'm reasonably certain.  I do know when
we bought an RA81 in mid-1984, it was 424MB for $24,000.  DEC VT100s
were around $1,800 in the early-1980s, I'm pretty sure, then we
switched to CiTOH terminals for around $1,600.  When you add in
16-port Emulex CS21s to attach all those terminals, and divide the
cost of the central machine by the number of users, I think you get
that $5,000 per user cost.  IBM-brand PCs were also about the same
cost per seat, but the software was a lot cheaper (minicomputer apps
were tens of thousands of dollars for a handful of users; PC apps were
hundreds per user), and PC maintenance was way cheaper (but not as
convenient as a full-service maintenance contract).

So, yeah, DEC gear was expensive and PCs were cheaper, but perhaps not
as much cheaper as people felt they were.

BTW, these are all new prices from when the gear was first launched
(when we bought those items).  Where the savings came was if you could
live 2-3 years behind the leading edge.  I bought a lot of DEC
equipment from resellers that kept us going for more than 10 years.
Lots of other companies went with Ethernet and PCs on every desk, etc.
We stuck with minicomputers (VAXen and PDP-11s) for the vast majority
of our work (correspondence, software development, cutting customer
tapes...) and used PCs for a couple of specific tasks (accounting,
because Peachtree on an IBM PS/2 Model 30 was way cheaper than any
equivalent app for VMS, and circuit board design with OrCAD and

So there's a slice of the mid-80s and how we got things done.  I'm
reminded a bit of all this recently as I'm refurbing a DEC VT220 and
an IBM 3130 terminal, to use with a modern Linux box to share with
folks the experience of life on dumb terminals.  I'll probably make a
post soon, once I get the hardware all cleaned up, calling for
favorite DEC and IBM games that play on dumb terminals.


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