3/02/2010

30 years of QNX: The first OS to support a PC hard drive

Back in the early 1980s, I came across an IBM XT equipped with a "whopping" 10MB hard drive. The drive alone cost $3000, which at the time amounted to one-tenth the average salary of an electrical engineer. I remember thinking, “Who the hell would need a hard drive that big?” Some people are born futurologists; I'm not one of them.

The XT in question used MS-DOS, but DOS wasn't the first OS to support a hard drive on a PC. That honor belongs to QNX, which in 1982 introduced support for a 5MB Davong. If that sounds small, you're right: it's just enough to store a single photo from one of today’s low-end digital cameras.

Supporting a hard drive wasn’t the only first for QNX. It also became the first realtime OS to support 286 protected mode, to offer distributed processing, and to run on a Compaq 386 machine.

The very first commercial version of QNX required 64K of RAM. That's only six one-hundred thousandths of a gigabyte, a gigabyte being the bare-bones configuration of a modern PC. Still, that was "enough memory to run the OS, a shell, and actually compile programs... it was even possible to do a few background chores at the same time, like printing a file.” I'm quoting from a FAQ written by veteran QNX user Mitchell Schoenbrun.

Speaking of Mr. Schoenbrun, here’s a closeup of him holding a pre-release copy of QNX — version 0.433, to be exact. If you attended the QNX 2000 users’s conference, you would have had the rare pleasure of seeing this ultra-early release running in the QNX booth:

10 comments:

Anonymous said...

If they had continue they OS. by now they would have been top in the world..

aliquis said...

They have continued with it, it still exist and is still used in various areas. Not just on your desktop.

Paul N. Leroux said...

That's right, Aliquis. QNX's main focus was always in the embedded market: cars, factory control systems, massive Internet routers, medical devices, etc. There are many millions of cars on the road today using QNX-based systems.

- Paul

Anonymous said...

I hope QNX isn't what's powering the Toyota onboard computer :)

Paul N. Leroux said...

I believe that Toyota does use QNX, but in infotainment, navigation, or telematics systems, not in low-level control systems. - Paul

Anonymous said...

Fortuantely, QNX is also what is used to monitor and control most nuclear power reactors.

Imagine if it was Windows yikes!

Anonymous said...

I've learned something today I always thought that the protected mode came with the 386.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Yeah, I was surprised, too. Mind you, according to Wikipedia, 286 protected mode wasn't widely used.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Protected_mode

Mitchell Schoenbrun said...

I am Mitchell Schoenbrun. I don't recall saying that QNX was the first OS that supported a hard drive. Even saying that it was the first that supported a hard drive on an IBM PC would be dubious. The first hard drive I recall was not a Davong. Another company whose name escapes me had three drives a 5, a 10 and a 20. These were minicomputer drives. The 5Meg was about $3000 The Davong came with a controller and was $2000 so it was great bargain. Later they also had a 10meg version. The driver was hacked into the OS, before the "mount" command came along. I'd be surprise however if Davong didn't provide a DOS driver when they released their product. Of course that would have been DOS 1.1, which had only one directory, the root. I seem to recall that you could partition it into multiple smaller disks, necessary with only a root directory.

Paul N. Leroux said...

Hi Mitchell! If you re-read the paragraph in question, you'll see that I'm referring to the quoted words, where you state that QNX required 64K of RAM. I wasn't trying to imply that you said QNX was the first PC OS to support a hard drive. My apologies if I've inadvertently left that impression. It was completely unintentional.

But to your main point, was QNX truly the first PC OS to support a hard drive? Let me see if someone at QNX more qualified than me can shed light on the issue. This is a longstanding claim, and now I'm intrigued!