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«John Faughnan Sanja Stevanovic March 16, 1996 Project Management john TABLE OF CONTENTS EXECUTIVE SUMMARY INTRODUCTION ...»

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Flight of the Eagle: The

Birthing and Life of a


John Faughnan

Sanja Stevanovic

March 16, 1996

Project Management











Executive Summary In April of 1978 the Eagle Project began at Data General, a Massachusetts based minicomputer company. Two years later, the first Eclipse MV/8000 super-minicomputer was introduced to the world. The Eclipse line would continue at Data General until 1988, prematurely terminated by the forces of commodity computing and the rise of UNIX workstations and personal computers.

The Eagle project, under the direction of Tom West, forged a small number of experienced managers and about 20 recent engineering graduates into a highly effective engineering team. A journalist was accepted into the team, and he documented their successful effort in a Pulitzer prize winning novel — The Soul of a New Machine.

Based on Kidder’s work, trade journal accounts, technical articles, and electronic interviews with knowledgeable observers, we’ve reconstructed the Eagle project in the context of Data General and the burgeoning computer industry of the early 80s. We review the tactical strengths and weaknesses of this project, which probably saved the company from extinction. We examine the effective team building process, and the impact of Data General’s deteriorating economic status. We examine project delays, and consider whether they might have been averted by the use of modern planning methodologies.

The principle lessons of the Eagle project may be strategic lessons. This high-technology project’s success was cut short by a technological discontinuity: the rise of the commodity workstation and personal computer. We examine the implications for modern high-technology products, and review the lessons Data General learned from the Eagle project and its aftermath.

Introduction In most histories of computing, Data General (DG) is barely mentioned. Data General was one of many casualties in the Great Wars of computing. IBM’s mainframes ruled for decades — an eternity in computer years. Then large scale integrated circuits gave rise to the 1970s minicomputer industry; along with the Digital Equipment Corporation came Data General and some 50 other minicomputer companies. These proud companies assaulted the mainframe and grew with dizzying speed; they were the Microsoft and Netscape of their day. Triumph seemed at hand, then came the workstation and the microcomputer. Disaster! Intel, Sun, and Silicon Graphics rose up. Data General almost died, to recently reemerge as an evangelist for non-proprietary “Open Systems”.

Data General made a fortune, and it lost a fortune. Its zenith came on April 29th 1980, the day it introduced a 32 bit super-minicomputer, the Eclipse MV/8000. Eight years later the Eclipse line ended, along with all of Data General’s proprietary systems. The Eclipse is now part of history, with no direct descendants.

Why should we be interested in a project that led to a now extinct product in a now little known computer company? There are several good reasons. Tracy Kidder wrote a Pulitzer prize winning novel about the Eclipse MV/8000 project (code-named Eagle), titled The Soul of a New Machine [1]. No other information system project has been so well documented from the human perspective. Secondly, the Eagle project did produce a new, high technology product, on a very tight timeline. Thirdly, we can compare the Eagle project to the yet more obscure Fountainhead Project, which took place simultaneously at Data General. Lastly, the project, and what followed, provides a window into a fascinating time in industrial history, and an important example of the strategic management of technology.


Tracy Kidder’s book provides a gold-mine of product related information, particularly when interpreted in the context of our course material. Unfortunately, not much else has been written about the Eagle project, which, after all, is only one of hundreds of similar projects that were underway at the time.

Traditional database searches produced little of value, as most databases do not extend beyond 1986. Locating relevant articles required manual review of available trade publications over the period 1979-1982. The annual Datamation “Top 100” allowed us to trace the history of the Eclipse Project, and the course of its product, over a nine year interval [ref 10-17, see also Attachment A — Timeline].

We used web search tools (Info Search, Alta Vista) to search web space for references to Eagle, Eclipse, and key project participants. That search guided us to Data General’s web site. The last two years of position papers and annual reports allowed us to complete our timeline, analyze the longer term impact of the project, and identify some of the lessons learned during the Eclipse Project and thereafter [19-22].

We solicited input by posting on two newsgroups, the IEEE and ACM (Association of Computing Machinery) groups [Attachment D.1]. We received two very informative replies, one from a systems engineer who worked at DG at the same time (Brown), and another from an architecture specialist (Cline) who worked on related projects and knew the principles quite well [Attachment D.3]. The specific questions answered by Cline and Brown are found in Attachment D.2.

We also contacted Data General public relations by phone, but repeated voice messages went unanswered.

The varied data sources were used to construct the timelines [Attachment A], and data elements were aggregated by focal topic. There was surprisingly little overlap in information, and no real areas of conflict to resolve.

Project Description and History For ten years Data General had been on the ascent. The company was born when Edward De Castro, one of DEC’s preeminent engineers, walked out the door. De Castro started his new company, Data General, in a Westborough, Massachusetts' beauty parlor. For ten years it enjoyed annual growth rates of well over 20%, based on 16 bit minicomputers sold largely to a scientific and technical community that needed little hand-holding.

Then, in 1978, the Data General engine began to sputter. Litigation and product delivery delays had alienated many customers. Worst of all, Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), the leading minicomputer manufacturer, had created a leading edge minicomputer. The DEC VAX 11/780 was a 32-bit machine; it established a new category of high-end minicomputer — the “super-minicomputer”. The super-minis appealed to technical users who needed power for simulations and graphical interfaces, and to business users considering alternatives to expensive mainframes for office automation. These profitable machines typically sold for about $100,000 to $300,000, but cost only $25,000 or so to make (1978 dollars).

Data General had no alternative to the VAX 11/780. They knew their technical customers were capable of changing vendors very quickly; Data General needed a promising solution quickly. Unfortunately, they were headed down the wrong track. The Fountainhead Project (FHP), begun secretly in late 1976, was nowhere near producing a product [4]. The majority of DG’s R&D resources had been diverted to the FHP, located in North Carolina’s Research Park Triangle. FHP was going to create the ultimate “nocompromises” minicomputer. This technically beautiful, elegant, longest-path project would burn scarce resources for almost 6 years, before being completely abandoned.

Back in Massachusetts, engineers were working on modifications to DG’s aging 16-bit Eclipse line of minicomputers. They’d been left behind when the company’s focus shifted to North Carolina, and they wanted a greater challenge to meet. It is not clear that they recognized that the FHP was doomed; Kidder’s account suggests they were envious of its ambitious “clean page” approach. Cline, however, states that he declined an offer to join the FHP because “I didn’t think it would work given the management structure” [4]. Thomas West, who is today the VP for Advanced Engineering at DG, wanted a project to tackle, and he wanted to occupy his engineers. He had the strong support of Carl Carman, then DG’s VP of engineering. Together they proposed a “fast, Eclipse-like machine”, which West marketed as “insurance” [1, p. 47].

The project was accepted in April of 1978, but resources were scarce. DG was really not big enough to run two full-scale development projects, and the FHP had strong support from De Castro. Thomas West, who became Project Manager, and Carl Carman the VP for engineering, would have to fight for support. They made some Faustian bargains to get the project launched. Their first such bargain was to set a deadline of April 1979.

The actual product, the Eclipse MV/8000, would be presented to the world on April 29, 1980, exactly one year late (100% over-run). The project was Christened “Eagle”.

The project timeline is given in Attachments A and B (table form for this project and outline for overall DG timeline). Attachment C presents the Eclipse Group structure. An initial team began work in the spring of 1978. Several fundamental decisions were made very early in the project, by West with input from De Castro and team members. The new machine would be backwards compatible with 16-bit Eclipses and DG peripherals; it would run existing software without modification. The Eagle would not use a “bit mode”; it must not require restarting to run older applications. It must run faster than the equivalent DEC, the CPU should need far fewer than VAX’s 27 boards, and each major element should fit on one board [1, p. 119]. Lastly, it would use “programmable array logic” (PAL) chips. The PAL chips greatly reduced the cost of production, and increased design flexibility, but they made manufacturing dependent upon a very new single-source technology from an outside company [1, 5].

Two important decisions were made largely because of resource constraints, but, in retrospect, they may have been the “right” decisions for the project. Firstly, West (PM), and Alsing (assistant PM) decided to hire “kids”. New graduates would be much less expensive, would work longer hours, and would be more adaptable. Secondly, the new graduates would operate in a new work arrangement. In 1978 machine design was typically done by a group of architects, who worked separately from the implementation team. For the Eagle project, as at DEC, “implementers and architects [would] interact in a top-down, goal driven design effort at the earliest phase of development” [5, 4]. This method, with its improved interaction and communication and deferred design freeze, has become the industry standard.

The Eagle project was divided into a software implementation teams, lead by Alsing and Holland, and a hardware implementation team, led by Rasala and Holberger [Attachment C]. The teams called themselves the “Micro-Kids” and the “Hardy Boys”. A veteran system architect, Steve Wallach would operate semi-independently, and also manage the critical liaison to the systems software groups (a separate functional group). The groups worked in close proximity in limited windowless quarters, closed off from the rest of the company. Team members described this as “mushroom management” (keep them in the dark and feed them ___). Intense collaboration and communication were almost inevitable.

The project was in full swing by the fall of 1978. The architectural design proceeded fairly smoothly, using work that had been done on MULTICS (UNIX precursor), and borrowing from two informal projects that had been terminated (EGO and EAGLE-1) [1, 4]. The machine architecture used “protection rings”, which had been pioneered by MULTICS but were not common in commercial machines [1, 4]. Kidder details several technical challenges over the next 6 months that had to be overcome, largely dealing with the coordination of cache architectures with memory sub-systems. These required intense work, but they were the expected challenges of developing a new system. At this time Data General as a whole was running into problems. DG was preoccupied with litigation, which would be a giant resource drain during the 80s. Customer support and management were having trouble dealing with the rapid growth of the 70s. [10].

Earnings and share prices began to fall.

In early 1979 a prototype system was operational, only a month or so behind schedule.

About the same time West learned that the FHP would definitely not produce a machine within the year (it would never produce a production machine). Data General’s finances worsened, and the struggle for resources became increasingly bitter. West felt that the future of DG depended on the Eagle.

Debugging began, and the project ran into serious problems. Debugging proved much more difficult than had been anticipated, even with the use of a sophisticated simulator which emulated the Eagle in software. The schedules continued to slip, and deadlines became mobile. In mid-1979 the sole supplier of the critical PAL components was teetering on bankruptcy — without these components the project was doomed. Around that time Carl Carmen, VP for engineering and a key project supporter, left Data General [10]. Data General’s upper levels were at war, but West and project managers shielded team members.

In October of 1979 the prototype Eagles passed the Multiprogram Reliability Test, and went “down the hall” to software. It was a computer. A month later, West, the PM, left the project for a Data General position in Japan, allegedly because he’d made too many enemies [5]. Rasala, Wallach, and Alsing would steer the project to completion. The machine would be delayed another five months, apparently because the PAL components were in short supply. These were five months that DG could not spare, but there was little choice.

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