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Norsk Data (wikipedia.org)
301 points by scottlocklin on May 7, 2020 | hide | past | favorite | 91 comments

Funny to see Norsk Data being mentioned in Hacker News. I actually had the pleasure of attending a guest lecture in 2014 at my university (University of Tromsø) during my studies where founder Rolf Skår, and multiple other notable people from ND, talked. It was extremely interesting to hear their stories, and also especially seeing how bright and engaged they were even though they all were almost in their 80s.

Something they talked about that wasn't mentioned here is how tightly Norsk Data worked with the military, and that one of their most powerful computers was specifically designed to analyze Sonar signals from sensors in North Norway to listen for submarines of the coast.

A couple of years I was giving a talk on Low Power Wide Area Networking and showed off a LoRA module that my team had designed and manufactured. After the talk an elderly gentleman came over and asked lots of questions and was very interested in the module.

He seemed oddly familiar.

Turns out this was Lars Monrad-Krohn, one of the founders, and the CEO of Norsk Data. After the conference was over he smiled and asked "can I invite you gentlemen out for dinner so we can continue the conversation?".

We had a lovely evening and many interesting discussions. He is still sharp. And one of the nicest people I've met.

Nice. I miss my days at the greenfield Origo/TM in 96/97/98; I had the great pleasure of working with some incredibly clued in people who have done very well for themselves since. The Norwegian community was very much at the forefront; shutting down the Index project was a decision I'd truly like to see the other version of though.

Norsk Data management failed to realize that their customers only bought their proprietary hardware because that was the only way to run their software. The software was what the customers really wanted. The last years Norsk Data was in business, a large part of their income came from service contracts on their hardware. So it is understandable that Norsk Data missed the chance to switch to using standard unix and pc based hardware. The management was also very proud of their hardware and operating system. Which is very understandable since they had made them themselves in the early days. They had their own sql database, word processor, development tools and lots of customers. Norway could have been an IT giant. Instead Norsk Data had their Kodak moment 10 years before Kodak. The only thing left now is the Norsk Data campus in Oslo.

But the extra tragedy is that Kodak anticipated and tried to adopt to the digital revolution. Yet failed, overtaken by the sheer speed of adoption.

> For a period in 1987, Norsk Data was the second largest company by stock value in Norway, second only to Norsk Hydro, and employed over 4,500 people.

Interesting that a computer manufacturer was the second biggest company in Norway in 1987

In Denmark in the 80es we had similar companies such as Regnecentralen and Dansk Data Elektronik creating business focused "micro" or "mini" computers.

Big and innovative companies at their time but suffering about the same fate as Norsk Data.

Right. The Copenhagen University lab at Ris ø in the '80s used a Nord-something and a Regnecentralen RC4000 for data collection and reduction. [As far as I remember, they only exchanged data on tapes, but it was amusing to think of them having to use English otherwise, after experiencing attempts to communicate in generalized Scandinavian.]

RC4000 seemed steam-driven even then. However, I didn't know its significance at the time, and that our British GEC4000 systems were a better implementation of that pioneering approach, though I've never confirmed the influence, and OS4000 didn't use Algol. Probably the UK could go in that mix with Norway and Denmark. "Zjuh compuuder ish all shcrewwed uupp" — excuse my Danish — was a common phrase around the RC4000 which went back to Liverpool, but there was less occasion for it with the GEC systems. Respect to former colleagues.

Norway was not very rich back then yet, oil hadn't kicked in with full force.

Norway's GDP per capita was higher than US and UK in 1987. They have been rich for a long time.


Great chart! I guess my assumed reference was the current mental image where there's the oil fund worth over a million crowns for every citizen.

That fund affects day to day life a lot less than you might expect, FWIW. It's not like we get to just... spend that; it's somewhat comparable to saying "the New York Stock Exchange contains over $foobar dollars per citizen" (although of course the fund isn't managed at all like a stock exchange, either).

The most direct influence I've seen of the oil fund is that it provides capital behind some investments systems that are aimed to drive business creation in _non_-oil sectors (including technology).

Most other resource rich nations are victims of the resource curse. That you don't just spend that money and that the most direct influence you've seen is economic diversification is extraordinary as far as recent history is concerned.

Norway produced only slightly less oil in 1987 than they do now. The Aleksander Kielland accident happened in 1980, and by that time, oil was huge business.

Finally some acknowledgement for Norsk Data.

It was destroyed by a right wing government which refused to "pick winners", and grant broader governmental innovation funding. And of course in addition not winning the CPU arms race which happened at the time.

However to think that Norway had an infant computer industry, with its own NON-UNIX mainframe system, complete with hardware in several sizes, operating systems and so on. It was even cloned by the Soviet Union, and cloned spare parts were sold behind the iron curtain!

What this company achieved was monumental.

There are more examples. Between the 60ies and early 90ies, Philips in the Netherlands sold their own line of proprietary computer systems such as the P800 series (PDP/11-like) and P4000 series (a Cobol programmed office computer). The Philips computer division was later sold to DEC. Information about much of this hardware is nearly nonexistent.

Indeed. There were over two dozen minicomputer manufacturers at the peak in the early 1970s in just the USA. I don't know off the top of my head, but I imagine there were just as many in Europe.

Most of the machines and their software are entirely lost to history at this point, with the companies bankrupt or dissolved and documentation and hardware all scrapped.

Philips also had MSX based computers as well

-Additionally (while on the subject of computer history and norsemen), the first ARPANET node outside the US was located in Norway; NORSAR (The Norwegian seismic survey) was hooked up in June 1973 - presumably the seismic activity of interest to the US was Soviet nuclear tests.

This is funny because Norsk Data computers were used in VNIIPAS ( All Union Scientific Research Institute for Applied Computerized Systems) for first Soviet X.25 network, connected to the rest of the world via Austria.

ND also had a Unix System V port running on their machines (the ND-4000 but not ND-800 series if I recall correctly).

Source: worked for ND 1988/9 (not in Norway, though) when the end was nigh and they were looking for a plan B as customers moved to open systems (= Unix)

Edit: didn't recall correctly; was ND-570 not ND-800 and ND-5000 not ND-4000 (in late 1980s these series were basically the same at the CMOS level and an ND-570 could be on-site migrated to 5000 by merely cutting a wire on the board with a knipper to engage additional instructions or address lines)

The 5000 series was different from the 500 series, it was a new generation of computers and the 570 wasn't a 5000 in hiding.

But it's basically correct that you could field-upgrade some of the models to a faster model, not exactly by just snipping a wire, but you could e.g. change the cycle time, and enable caching. But to go from the 5200 to the 5400 you would need to change some boards too. Here's an overview: http://www.ndwiki.org/wiki/ND-5000_family#System_performance

I suspect that's not entirely accurate. The ND-5000 series was a real upgrade to the ND-500 series, with distinct silicon.

However, I have seen the cutting-a-wire-on-a-board in real life. We bough an upgrade from an ND-530 to an ND-570, and a technician came with a knipper. It was surreal: The upgrade was north of 100KUSD. And all they did was cut a wire.

It's what made the rounds in dev circles where I worked. The technician would have still to upgrade/re-install the OS, and to prevent the perceived rip-off with the knipper to be noticed and make the customer feel bad, I think they also discussed that the technician should do some theater job such as walking in with a packaged CPU upgrade kit so that the upgrade took at least 2 hours. It was not a rip-off, as the 5000 had, like all CPUs, a costly upfront development investment. Idk but the reason why some ND-500 -> 5000 upgrades may have come with real silicon while others only need the knippers job is maybe that once the 5000 CPU was produced in quantities, the 500 that were still sold were equipped with 5000 CPUs from that point on, to save an expensive CMOS production line. Even IBM, by around 1990 at the latest, produced all their non-X86 CPUs (for P-Series aka RS/6000, I-Series aka AS/400, and Z-Series aka S/390) off the same silicon.

Agreed. I recall rescuing a 5000 series CPU board from some systems being retired. The boards had originally cost ~50K GBP each and consisted of four seperate 12" x 16" boards bolted together in a 3" thick stack. The boards had several MCUs including M68k plus lots of 74series logic chips (numbers approximate - it was a long time ago).

Wikipedia comments that the ND500/ND5000 architecture wasn't especially Unix friendly as it was based on a 16-bit front-end & I/O ND100 processor to the 32-bit ND500/ND5000 cpus. Also that this was ultimately a system bottleneck for competition in general.

The ND-100 was a bottleneck for the 500 series, and initially also for the 5000 series. But as time went by the 5000 series acquired intelligent I/O interfaces sitting directly on the Multi-Function bus on the 5000, and there was less and less of a bottleneck. The systems I worked on had to get the absolute last possible drop of I/O performance out of it, and by having the ND-100 do its own I/O in parallel with I/O on the 5000 the whole thing worked very efficiently in the early nineties. The bottleneck, near the end, moved to the 5000 (or 5700, as it were) CPU instead. A Sun 4 could run circles around the 5700 in processing time - at one point I ran all our Fortran code through f2c and executed it on the Sun. Wow. That's when I started to talk with the customer about a possible rehost (which we did, to an SGI).

Yeah, key to programming the ND500 and ND5000 series was to utilize the ND100 properly. Way too much software would overload the ND100, while leaving the ND500(0) running idle.

> It was destroyed by a right wing government which refused to "pick winners", and grant broader governmental innovation funding.

The Conservative party took over the Norwegian government in 1981 and held the power alone or with coalition parties until 1990. I am by no means an expert in Norsk Data trivia, but if Norsk Data was the second largest company in Norway in 1987, I have a hard time understanding that Norsk Data was destroyed by 'the right wing government which refused to "pick winners"'.

In this article 1] the government is not mentioned and the author Arild Haraldsen asks the question: "Could Norsk Data have been Saved? Nothing suggests that it could".

1] https://translate.google.com/translate?sl=auto&tl=en&u=https...

Of course it could have been saved with proper funding, restructured, could have been nationalised, many other options.

They also sold CAD workstations in late 1980s with relative success.

First time attempt at booting an ND-computer:


"No, 32 utropstegn, not 32 utropstegn, like this":



But it was 22!, not 32!.. if you wanted to boot SINTRAN-III at least :-)

I first heard of ND about 15 years ago when I inherited the source to a hoary old set of C libraries with a long history behind them.

I found an #ifdef ND5000 sitting in a header somewhere, and had to investigate.

Ah, the ND C-compiler. It was created in Germany. I still remember porting a fairly large application from FORTRAN to C, and then running it on the brand new compiler.

That was were i worked, in Kiel/North Germany! Though I didn't work on the elusive compiler stuff (only being there on an apprenticeship, and then on my first "real" freelance gig).

You knew Ralf H. then? I got compiler fixes directly from him - for bugs I found in my compiled code, and once for a special version of the Pascal compiler (the standard one couldn't pack records they way we needed)

Not sure, I'm not good with names. I remember there being two guys working permanently on compilers (Pascal, mostly, and C), and another student coming in occasionally during the period I've been there. I remember the main dev having reservations about C++ which was new at the time. I believe they had ties to CUA (Christian-Albrecht-University of Kiel), which had a pretty good reputation for compsci, and still has AFAIK.

He's on linkedin, if you want to connect with him.

I want that terminal: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ND-500#/media/File:ND-560.jpeg

It looks a lot like the Siemens terminals. It was also marketed under the Tandberg name.

The green screens were cool, but the Nokia 80Hz+ ergonomic black-on-white terminals were actually much better and the ones that everybody wanted to use.

I'm not in agreement - not fully at least. The Nokia was maybe preferable to the older Tandberg 2115 terminals, but the later Tandberg models were better in every respect (the last one I used was the 2400. Excellent. black-on-white, multiple serial inputs so that you could use one terminal with multiple computers, etc.)

The Tandberg keyboard was, on every model, vastly better than anything else out there, including the Nokia. I should mention that A) I have one Nokia 301 S terminal at home, and B) I still have ND/Tandberg keyboards with PS/2 interfaces, I use it today on my Linux box and it's still better than anything, for a touch typist like me.

One thing the Nokia terminal has is that it can switch to VT220 mode too. It's got several identities built in, including that one.

(I've got an ND-110 mini as well, that's what I need the Nokia for - the console port is current loop only. Which the Nokia terminal supports.)

Looking of the pictures, I think I actually meant the Tandberg 2400 - definitely looks closer to what I remember than any of the Nokias. Though I sat in front of one or two older 2115s most of the time and could work with the 2400s only when the boss or someone else with a 2400 wasn't in the office. I'm getting quite some details wrong it seems. The ND competence on HN to proove me wrong here is amazing :)

No they were larger and similar in size to the ND original terminals, and with huge stands, but without the cheesy brownish color, though that's what makes ND monitors distinctly retro I guess. They were also quite slow in rendering characters so you could do "live-debugging" if your program produces lots of output to the terminal :)


And they even had their own iMac-liks colorful ones. Before Apple!


Anyone remember the special terminals that were used in EDBLF (defense project)? Siemens Nixdorf terminals with the same style keyboard as the ND terminal in the picture.

If memory serves those were specially made and cost a fortune.

I did not realise Tandberg [1] was still alive. Some seems now owned by Cisco [2], other elsewhere [3], etc.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tandberg

[2] https://www.cisco.com/c/en/us/services/acquisitions/tandberg...

[3] https://www.tandbergdata.com

Does anyone know what is the transparent container with white contents in the second picture of the wiki page? [0] It is mounted under the typing terminal.

[0] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Norsk_Data#/media/File:Norsk_D...

I do believe that's an ASR-33 teletype, which have a built-in paper tape punch and reader. That's the chad bin for all the little bits punched out of the tape.

It's before my time, but I have used one. I can guarantee that it was never that tidy in practice. My experience with punching a tape is that the chads seem to go everywhere except the bin. It's a fire hazard before long.

In the picture: - To the left: Centronics matrix printer, model 101 or 102. The "Centronics" interface lived on, but then it was on Epsons and other printers. But here's an actual Centronics. - To the right of the printer: The NORD-20 16-bit computer, which followed the NORD-2B but preceded the NORD-10. - To the right of the NORD-20: A Facit 4070 paper tape puncher and a punched card reader on the table - And of course the ASR-33 teletype which had its own tape puncher and reader. The sound of an ASR-33 will never be forgotten if you've ever used one.. good memories.

It looks like a paper punch terminal, so the container collects the leftovers after punching

I learned programming on a Nord-10 in high school. Me and two friends wrote a chess playing program in Nord-PL.

It wasn't very good, but we learned a lot, and all 3 of us made a career in software.

This is slightly before my time, but worldwide all F16 Weapon System Trainers (simulators for the F16 aircraft) were hosted on Norsk Data machines. They had a hardware shared memory that allowed more than 1 processor. This was 1970's / 1980's. Replaced with SGI in the 1990's. There were Norsk Data manuals laying around in the company until about 2000, because back then when you bought a computer they came with books. I was told the Norsk was chosen due to political / work share issues, as at that time in the US SEL was the dominant real time mini computer vendor. But, I was not there, so who knows..

Ha. My father worked for Norsk Data in the UK during the late 1980s and early 1990s after they bought Wordplex. They had incredible offices at a stately home near Newbury.

Weird... My father did too. He was one of the engineers who drove around fixing Wordplex word processors at customer sites. There were always a couple of spare machines sitting in his car or in the garage; he showed me how to play games on them. I even wrote some school projects on them; they had these huge daisy-wheel printers that sounded like machine guns!

Sounds very familiar - they probably knew each other.

Hah, I also came here to post that my dad worked for them in the 80’s (though in Oslo, even though he’s Irish). Didn’t expect to see two other people saying the same thing!

I think there’s still a Norsk Data coffee mug in his house somewhere.

I do not understand how such innovative organizations end up falling apart. Bell Labs had a similar objective, only researchers were able to do basically anything with unlimited funding. Many salient innovations were made at Bell Labs, I wonder if such organizations exist to this day on the scale of Bell or Norsk Data.

Bell Labs fell apart because its reason to exist (and funding source) vanished when AT&T was broken up.

Would be interested to read more about their attempt to port the MIT Lisp Machine software to the ND-500.

Don't know anything about it, but here's an article about a keyboard intended for the machine: http://xahlee.info/kbd/racal_norsk_kps_10_keyboard.html

Looks cool.

On an unrelated note, thrilled to see Xah Lee is still around and kicking!

Didn't know we used to have a computer industry here. Shame it's all gone now :/

I worked on one, first job from university, reverse-engineering health systems data protocols to re-sell ND backed services into the hospital system. Decent enough machine but as soon as I got work on the pdp-11 and vax my heart was sold.

My old college had an ND-570 and an ND-560. I learned ADA on those.

They had their own Unix port, called NDIX!

Based upon 4.2BSD (with the networking from 4.3BSD) and was a 40+ floppy disk install, IIRC. Learnt a lot on these plus the Prime superminis we used at uni.

"Endix" doesn't sound very optimistic...

Coolest thing of SINTRAN (ND's O/S) was the command shell which was designed such that you could have expressive long names for commands and other files, yet could also use short forms for easy typing in a word-lattice kind of way (and more stylish than on Unix). For example, the "ls" command was "list-files" and you could write "li-fi" or "l-f" as long as there was no other command/executable in scope that would be ambiguous. Worked with more than a single hyphen as well (eg. set-file-permission etc.)

Actually I implemented a Unix glob filter that did exactly that out of boredom on a project 20 years ago :)

I guess emacs users and LISPers in general would be loving it (the concept not my C implementation that is).

Cisco shell is like this, 'show running-config' becomes 'sh ru'

The Cisco shell is a direct descendent of the DEC TOPS-20 one BTW.

> direct descendent

never heard anything like this - care to elaborate / point?

The Cisco founders were DEC20/TOPS20 fanatics from Stanford. It’s perfectly sensible that their chosen CLI would reflect their favorite example - and it really is an excellent CLI.

Post Cisco, Len Bosack actually started a company, XKL, intending to build the next-gen DEC20. By the time this actually happened, the world had long moved on and XKL redirected to optical networks stuff.

I don't know whether I am committing sampling bias, but this looks eerily familiar [1].

The perhaps incorrect deduction here is that the Nordics are ahead when it comes to core or fundamental science, but they are behind when it comes to tech business longevity and business expansion potential. Of course, many of its tech companies are rather old companies to start off with [2].

Some countries suffer from a kind of inverse of this: In South Africa, fundamental science is hard to come by. (The rest of Southern Africa is even worse.) An example of this is indeed also the tech industry: If you are a programmer in South Africa, you are quite likely to be deploying and maintaining software such as Salesforce and Oracle, AWS workflows, MS SQL databases, PostgreSQL and MySQL, and so forth; and you are unlikely to be writing the actual code for the core technology that constitutes AWS, Oracle, etc. There are people writing apps, but I don't know many examples where the apps have global traction. Most websites written for local companies are shoddy and even the ones that look nice don't have any core invention behind them. Mark Shuttleworth actually lives in the Isle of Man now (not to mention Elon Musk...) and most South Africans probably don't know what Canonical is.

By contrast, if you already have a solid business in South Africa, your expansion potential is almost limitless. There are about 60 million people and most of them are below the age of 30 [3]. The youth unemployment rate, defined as unemployment of people between the age of 18 and I think 35, is usually around 60%. You also have, depending on who rates it, 7/10 of the top 10 universities in Africa as of 2020 [4]. You don't have to pay people with degrees a lot of money for it to be considered a high salary by global—especially American—standards.

[1] Norsk Data was caught off guard by the PC revolution, which had one big across hardware OS; Nokia didn't realise the importance of smartphones with one big across brand OS, apart from the iPhone. (Though I am still waiting for Linux Phone OS.)

[2] Nokia started off as a pulp mill. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nokia#1865%E2%80%931967

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Demographics_of_South_Africa#A...

[4] QS rates only nine universities in Africa, here is a pastebin as their website is difficult to navigate: https://pastebin.com/raw/ixLJ0Lqq. This means that the 10th university and below are not in the world top 500. It is quite likely that the University of Potchefstroom would be the 10th. Some sources claim 8/10 of the top 10, but I don't know which agency's ratings that is based on.

When talking about computer science, the original GSM network and Simula the first OOP language is also from Norway.

The GSM standard was an international effort. But as far as I know, the first GSM radio was built here in Trondheim, Norway.

In fact, I know where this radio is right now, because I've seen it :-).

I was at the local university (NTNU) where the lab dungeon keeper occasionally will test and refurbish old surplus lab equipment and then sell it. I was there to pick up a few power supplies and we started talking. Eventually he brought us on a tour of the dungeons and I found the first GSM radio standing on a shelf in the basement storage.


Interesting to see the monumental software having been found in northern Europe :-D

Can someone elaborate why this is being upvoted?

EDIT: Not sure why this comment is getting downvoted. I'm just interested in why people find the article interesting and/or if there was some recent news which made Norsk Data relevant again…

I upvoted because silicon valley people (such as wozniak) are often almost-exclusively credited for the advancements of the history of the computer. I did not know about the Norwegians' role which is cool.

I upvoted because is a bit of history I did not known about, I like reading or watching videos about old computers or consoles.

I believe it is because NORD-5 appears to be the first 32-bit minicomputer, built by Norsk Data in 1972.

-They also have the dubious honor of making the first 28-bit minicomputer, if the story I was told over beers at a geekfest at my alma mater holds true.

Apparently, in an effort to gain market share in the Soviet block (Which cloned ND products like there was no tomorrow anyway) without falling foul of COCOM rules, they neutered a few 32-bit NORDs and duly exported them east.

Presumably the COCOM regulations of the time said 'No 32 bit exports!'...

I thought it was generally interesting history, and little known enough to merit posting. Was very pleased with the response by NORD hackers.

I came across it (again) reading some physics history.

Related: dang had a couple of answers a day or so that should clear ip a bunch of misunderstandings, see dangs answer here, SilasXs reply to dang and dangs reply to SilasX: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=23087284

Edit, TLDR style, here's part of what dang says:

> You're misinterpreting that guideline, and I'm afraid HN might be missing out on some great submissions as a result! It's not limited to what good hackers would find interesting for hacker-related reasons. It's simply: what good hackers would find interesting.

Because it’s interesting

One day, some hacker might want to write an emulator of this computer.

I already did.. one for the ND-100, and one for the ND-500(0). But they are not done yet, and not release ready. The ND-100 emulator can't run the operating system, it only executes ND-100 executables under *nix. And it can't run multi-segment programs like Notis WP. The ND-500 emulator doesn't have to worry about operating systems, but my emulator isn't complete because there are still a couple of undocumented corners I haven't figured out yet. But I can run compilers and tools on both of them. My Nokia N900 phone has been running the ND-100 emulator for a very long time.. PED editor, Fortran-77 compiler..

But not release ready still. I'm busy working on the FUSE filesystem implementation at the moment.

There's another very good ND-100 emulator out there (runs executables like mine), it's on Github.

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