Avant  Technical Writer Services

.. previously Avant Internet Services Ltd (1998-2018)

The Trentham Computer Centre
ICL 2980

The State Services Commission's Computer Services Department, constructed a purpose-built building for the installation of a powerful bureau style mainframe in 1975. It was outfitted like Fort Knox, with hi-tech (for the time) security setups of various descriptions, two gigantic Dorman V12 Twin-Turbocharged Diesel Gensets, six huge alternators, and a large battery room. The building itself was a little extreme, but paranoia reigned after some deluded individual in 1982 blew himself up at the entrance to the matching Wanganui Police Computer building (another SSC-CSD establishment), and security was tightened even more.
The Trentham building now houses the Defence Force HQ.

The VME system ran on two processors (one of which is pictured above), providing a 1970's version of a Cloud Service to various Government Departments. User Clients logged into the system, and ran either batch or realtime queries, as Virtual Machines. This did mean at times that the Operations staff had to do some real-time juggling when two or three client departments needed more disk or tape resources than was possible at once. Frequent system crashes, due to frequently failing hardware, added to the headaches, and caused client frustration.

Gradually reliability improved, (although ICL's engineers worked on rostered shifts with the computer operators to keep things that way.) Finally, when a new generation Dual 3980 replaced the earlier machines, a high level of reliability was finally achieved, but most of the client departments had since gone their own way, including Customs.

When we moved the big Unisys Systems from the old Pipitea centre on Thorndon Quay in Wellington, out to Trentham to co-occupy the considerable space made available by the much more compact 3980. VME's abilities really stood out at times, when simple things like tape read failures simply meant unloading the volume and loading it onto another device. VME would find it, wind it forward to where it had been, and the job carried on. For the Unisys (and eventually IBM systems alongside), tape fails meant a restore and restart which often cost hours !

Main Console Dual ICL 2980 - Photo by Murray Green (1985)

The dual 2980 setup at Trentham was New Zealand's most powerfull computer when first installed, however it had a number of reliability problems for a start. Its big drawcard though was the advanced operating system ICL had devised for it 'VME - Virtual Machine Environment'. During the time we ran it in production, most of the mullard chipsets in it were changed as they failed one by one, however it appeared that this was mostly due to simply overheating. Where IBM with its 370/168 had gone for watercooling, ICL used dozens of fans, but did not include any warning alarms when any of them failed. Walking along the side of the rather large processors, checking with the back of one's hand that air was being forced out, became a scheduled manual check at the start of each shift.

Early Disk Farm - Photo by M.Green (1985)
Copyright: Avant I.S. Ltd, 2020