Quite so, hardware is the holy grail. (Alan Kay: "People who are really serious about software should make their own hardware.") I dream of a golden age of experimentation in vertical stacks: specialized hardware designed for specialized classes of application with only so much OS as is needed to support them. Perhaps if the cost of developing hardware falls the way the cost of developing software did, we might see something. Why not an Erlang machine? A Lua machine? A spreadsheet machine?
Enough to bother with?
Order of magnitude is table stakes for interesting, wouldn't you say? Radical experiments demand radical gains. Surely there is room for an order of magnitude if one is willing to sacrifice general-purpose computing.
My point is that if one is going to build a narrow vertical stack up from specialized hardware, there had better be a 10x advantage over running the application the ordinary way or the experiment becomes a why-bother. Also, the application had better be valuable enough to justify the effort.
This vision of systems design has been alive in the Forth community for a long time – maybe not the "iterating on hardware as part of application development" part, but certainly the specialized vertical stack idea, just in a very austere form. They make the tradeoff of dramatically reducing what the software will do in order to make it feasible to develop that way. That's a tradeoff most of us aren't willing to make. But I have a feeling there are more options if one is talking strictly about servers.
I think the term 'order of magnitude' has started taking on a connotation of essentially meaning 'a lot'. It's a fair observation, but I hear it bandied about so often that I rarely actually think the parties are in fact using it literally.
Targeting xen instead of bare metal sounds better to me. openmirage is doing that with ocaml.
Executives and most managers still had secretaries and dictated letters and memos. The Wang system was revolutionary. A multiuser, networkable word processing system that completely changed the game in terms of the time and effort necessary to produce typewritten documents.
They were supplanted in the 1980s by the more general purpose PC but definitely hold a significant place in the history of business computing.
Are general purpose operating systems really that inefficient?
I've thought about "boot into JVM" before, and I think it's enticing for technologists since it's so "clean", but all the projects aiming for this seems to have died from lack of interest (e.g. BEA Virtual JVM/JRockit Virtual Edition).
Edit: Perhaps I should explain where I'm coming from. I work on a high-performance spreadsheet system. One of the things that makes spreadsheets interesting is that their computational model is powerful enough to be valuable, yet not so powerful as to amount to general-purpose computing. Think of a server that doesn't need to do anything but access spreadsheet data, perform spreadsheet calculations, and serve them over the network to some client. Such a server's responsibilities are so specialized that one can't help but wonder how far down the stack one might push them and what one might gain by doing so. I daydream about this sort of thing.
At a previous job I wrote software for a manufacturing company, and it was a real eye-opener to see one of the head engineers there - who had never in his life wrote a program, as we would understand it - modifying the complex ladder logic of a PLC that operated parts of the factory, while I made changes to the software on the controlling PC. I realised that we were doing essentially the same thing, just in completely different spheres of operation.
Another example would be FPGAs, for relatively cheaply one can get a board with such a chip on it, and prototype all sorts of hardware designs essentially by writing software (in VHDL or Verilog). Again I've not done it personally but a friend of mine in smartcard research does this all the time, and doesn't call himself a software developer either even though it's really the same thing, just a different application to the usual general purpose machine.