The following are ten servers that have enabled IT world-beaters to
develop technological advancements that transformed the way we work and
live. While the people behind the systems are the real brains, this list
highlights the hardware they relied on.
Without further ado, in no particular order, here’s our list of the Ten Servers that Changed the World.
1. Google’s Very First Server
Server: Sun Ultra 2
Significance: First Google Server
The Sun Ultra 2 may seem like an unlikely candidate to make this
list, but it steps up as the server which first hosted Larry Page and
Sergey Brin’s Backrub search engine – which, of course, eventually
evolved into Google.
In 1998, Backrub was hosted on a Sun Ultra 2 with dual 200Mhz CPUs
and 256MB of RAM at Stanford University. The famous image of the
computer case partially made up of legos (pictured) isn’t actually the
Backrub server, but rather its enclosure for external storage. (There
were also a couple of Intel Servers and an IBM RS/6000 F50 in their
This is quite a humble beginning, considering there are now over
450,000 servers in Google’s datacenters around the world. The simplicity
of its search engine and its relative results blew away their
competitors. (And it all started on an Ultra 2.)
Further Reading on the Sun Ultra 2 and Google Servers:
1. Steve Job’s Sabbatical Server
Significance: First Web Server
NeXT and its NeXTCube are often cited as infamous flops.
NeXT was a bold company, led by Steve Jobs during his Apple sabbatical,
that didn’t quite live up to expectations. Despite its shortcomings,
the NeXTCube will always have a place in history as the very first web
The World Wide Web was born on a NeXTCube with a 25Mhz CPU, 2GB of disk and a gray scale monitor. Sir Tim Berners-Lee put the first web page
online on August 6, 1991 while working for CERN in Geneva Switzerland.
He designed the first web browser and editor, WorldWideWeb, on the
NeXTSTEP OS. Berners-Lee continues to shape the web world as the founder
of the W3C (World Wide Web Consortium), a researcher at MIT and recently as an advocate for the protection of Net Neutrality.
In 1996, Apple Computer acquired NeXT – and several components of the
NeXTStep OS would be crucial in the development of Mac OS X. Sun
Microsystems had also made investments in NeXT and ported some of the
OS’s components into the PA-RISC SPARC systems. Incidentally, the
NeXTCube was also used by John Carmack to develop the games Wolfenstein
3D and Doom.
Further Reading on the NeXTCube:
2. Mr. Watson, “QWERTYUIOP”
Server: DEC PDP-10
Significance: First Email Transmission
While Alexander Graham Bell’s first telephone call was clearly
documented as “Mr. Watson, come here,” the world will never know what,
exactly, was transmitted between two side-by-side DEC PDP-10 nodes in
The legendary Ray Tomlinson
of BBN, sent the first email over these nodes via the ARPANET network,
but contends that he doesn’t recall the characters he first transmitted,
stating that it was “something like ‘QWERTYUIOP.” Nonetheless, network
email was born, and just over two decades later became the foundation
for electronic communication, breaking down barriers and flattening the
world. We can also thank Ray for bringing the “@” symbol into our daily
use, as he decided to assign it as the unique character within email
Unlike the PDP-10 pictured here, Tomlinson’s PDP-10s did not have any
type of monitor or green screen, but rather would output to a printer
reel. The PDP-10 was a great success for DEC and was eventually used by
companies like Microsoft, who developed several versions of the BASIC
language on it. The model was widely adopted by universities, and in
fact, even Bill Gates learned on one in college. And Gates’ counterpart,
Paul Allen, seems to have a place in his heart for them as well –
owning a working model in his personal collection, documented online at PDP-Planet. The CGI for the movie TRON was rendered on a PDP-10, too.
Those interested in testing their programs in 36-bit goodness can find several PDP emulators on the net to play with.
Further Reading on the DEC PDP-10:
3. Vaccuum Tubes Powering the AirForce
Server: IBM AN/FSQ-7 Intercept
Significance: First Large-Scale Network
Before the internet became “a series of tubes,” SAGE, the first fully operational wide-scale network, actually was.
SAGE was designed by IBM at MIT in 1956 for the AirForce. It was
based on several of the IBM AN/FSQ-7 Intercept computers, and performed
as an air defense system. Each AN/FSQ-7 used 55,000 vacuum tubes and
occupied almost a 1/2 acre of datacenter space. It was the biggest
computer in history and its size will most likely never be surpassed.
The AN/FSQ-7 Intercept was a 32-bit dual processor system with
hot-pluggable power supplies, a modem and sold for $238 million. It
turns out that SAGE probably wouldn’t have worked for its intended
purpose of air defense, but the AN/FSQ-7s stayed in production until at
least 1985. They served well for air traffic control and were also a
popular backdrop for Hollywood command centers.
Further Reading on SAGE and the AN/FSQ-7:
4. The Steam Hammer vs John Henry 2.0
Server: IBM Deep Blue (RS/6000 SP)
Significance: Old Fable for New World
When world champion chess player Garry Kasparov lost a chess match to IBM’s Deep Blue computer on February 10, 2006, the world was at attention.
Deep Blue ran on the AIX OS and was built on a 32-node RS/6000 SP
RISC system. It could generate 200 positions per second and rank the
“goodness” of each one. It didn’t necessarily create a new technology or
make significant advances towards one… so how did it make this list?
Over 100 years, earlier the industrial revolution had begun to make
manual labor more efficient and reduce opportunities for man. Fears
manifested in fables such as that of John Henry, who represented the
best laborer man could offer versus machine. Now in the 1990s,
automation seems not only a threat to hard labor, but also to those who
use their brains instead of their bodies.. I believe Deep Blue versus
Kasparov became more than a marketing event for IBM; it turned into a
modern day fable representing our collective fears of what technology
could accomplish, and therefore what it could take away. Of course, this
fable is exaggerated because new opportunities will inevitably arise
with new technological developments.
As an interesting side note, there are theories that Deep Blue may
have had some help. Kasparov believes the machine did not act
appropriately, and other research has shown intriguing evidence as such.
IBM denies any interference.
Further Reading on Deep Blue and the IBM RS/6000 SP Node:
6.+7. The Transcontinental Network
Servers: Lincoln TX-2, IBM Q-32
Significance: First WAN Connection
In 1965, two servers on opposite coasts were networked together,
driving home the golden spike in a transcontinental wide area network.
Thomas Marill came up with a strategy to connect distant computers
and transfer data across telephone wires. Marill then hooked up with Larry Roberts and ARPA to make it happen.
The Lincoln TX-2 at the Lincoln labs in MIT, designed by Wesley Clark,
was connected with an IBM Q-32 (AN/FSQ-32) in Santa Monica, California
at SDC (System Development Corporation) Headquarters. In 1966, Marill
and Roberts documented their experiment and co-wrote Tward a Cooperative Network of Time-Shared Computers.
Further Reading on the Lincoln TX2 and IBM Q32:
8. The Birth of Flame Wars
Server: IBM VM Mainframe (BITNET)
Significance: Email Collaboration
When the first LISTSERV was created in 1981, the doors opened up to
group email collaboration. (Not to mention list spam, off-topic
discussions and flame wars.)
The original LISTSERV was hosted on an IBM VM mainframe over BITNET
(Because It’s Time NETwork). BITNET would later incorporate DEC VAX
systems into its network as well. Ira H. Fuchs
of CUNY and Greydon Freeman of Yale decided to connect their
universities using a leased telephone circuit between their mainframes.
By 1982, BITNET reached across the US and into Europe, creating a
worldwide network. The network peaked in connecting over 1400
organizations in 49 countries, but would sharply decline from here on
out due to the growth of the internet.
Further Reading on BITNET and the IBM VM Mainframe:
9. The Unix Genesis Machine
Server: DEC PDP-7
Significance: UNIX OS Developed
The DEC PDP-7 was released in 1965, but it was in 1969 when Ken Thompson
of Bell Labs and his team would develop the Unix OS. He would have
liked to have gotten his hands on a PDP-10 or an SDS Sigma 7, but
funding was refused, so the PDP-7 had to suffice.
In brief, Thompson was familiar with the MULTICS OS and had been
developing a game called Space Travel on it. He wanted to develop
advanced functions such as rotating planets that didn’t seem possible in
the current iteration of MULTICS. He was inspired to come up with a new
OS that could be programmed on the PDP-7 and his team dubbed it UNICS
(an emasculated MULTICS). The name obviously evolved into “Unix,” as did
the OS itself once it was developed on more advanced systems such as
Due to the fact that UNIX was developed on the PDP-7 and its printer
reel output (with no monitors or terminals), it still remains true that
UNIX is composed of very sparse commands and responses.
Further Reading on the DEC PDP-7:
10. Distributed Gaming Effect
Server: Sony Playstation 3
Significance: Widescale Distributed Computing
We could have gone with the XBOX 360 here, due to the number of
people who are hacking Linux onto it, but the fact that the Playstation 3
is going to support and distribute Linux gave it the edge. There are
also programs already shaping up to use the PS3 as a wide scale
distributed computing system.
Although it is yet to be released to the general public, the PS3
looks like it has the potential to put server power in the hands of
thousands who havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t had it before. The distributed computing
options will also supply additional processor nodes to those networks
that need all they can get, such as SETI or Folding@home.
The original users of those systems above, such as the 1/2 acre SAGE
system, must be blown away by the processing power that is packed into
this home console such as…
- 3.2Ghz Cell Broadband Engine CPU
- 60GB ATA Hard Drive
- 256MB RAM
- 550Mhz RSX Graphics Processing Unit
- Built-in Network Capabilities
Disclaimer: I don’t work for or represent any of the brands above,
but if Sony wants to send Vibrant a PS3 for the office, we’re just fine
Further Reading on the Sony Playstation 3:
I’m hoping that this is just the beginning of the discussion, so please let us know your thoughts in the comment section below.
Any glaring omissions?
A system you would take off of the list?
(Special thanks to Chris Garcia with the Computer History Museum in Mountain View for his time and insights in helping us refine this list.)