The Flex Computer System was developed by Michael Foster and Ian Currie of Royal Signals and Radar Establishment (RSRE) in Malvern, England, during the late 1970s and 1980s. It used a tagged storage scheme to implement a capability architecture, and was designed for the safe and efficient implementation of strongly typed procedures.
The hardware was custom and microprogrammable, with an operating system, (modular) compiler, editor, garbage collector and filing system all written in ALGOL 68RS.
There were (at least) two incarnations of Flex, implemented using hardware with writable microcode. The first was supplied by Logica to an RSRE design, and the second used an ICL PERQ. The microcode alone was responsible for storage allocation, deallocation and garbage collection. This immediately precluded a whole class of errors arising from the misuse (deliberate or accidental) of pointers.
A notable feature of Flex was the tagged, write-once filestore. This allowed arbitrary code and data structures to be written and retrieved transparently, without recourse to external encodings. Data could thus be passed safely from program to program.
In a similar way, remote capabilities allowed data and procedures on other machines to be accessed over a network connection, again without the application program being involved in external encodings of data, parameters or result values.
The whole scheme allowed abstract data types to be safely implemented, as data items and the procedures permitted to access them could be bound together, and the resulting capability passed freely around. The capability would grant access to the procedures, but could not be used in any way to obtain access to the data.
Another notable feature of Flex was the notion of shaky pointers, more recently often called weak references, which points to blocks of memory that could be freed at the next garbage collection. This is used for example for cached disc blocks or a list of spare procedure work-spaces.
COMFLEX, a packet switching network capable of transmitting data at magnetic-disc speed, was developed alongside Flex. It made feasible the use of remote file-stores, remote capabilities, and remote procedure calls.
- Terry, Phil F.; Wiseman, Simon R. (June 1988). On The Design And Implementation Of A Secure Computer System (PDF) (Report). Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. RSRE Memorandum No. 4188.
- Foster J M, Moir C I, Currie I F, McDermid J A, Edwards P W (October 1979). An Introduction to the FLEX Computer System (Report). Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. Report No 79016. Retrieved 12 February 2018.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
- Foster J M, Currie I F, Edwards P W (July 1982). Flex: A Working Computer with an Architecture Based on Procedure Values (Report). Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. RSRE Memorandum No. 3500. Retrieved 12 February 2018.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
- Tombs, D. J.; Bruce, D. I. (Nov 1991). The Evolution of Ten15 (PDF) (Report). Royal Signals and Radar Establishment.
- Currie I F, Foster J M, Edwards P W (December 1985). PerqFlex Firmware (Report). Royal Signals and Radar Establishment. Report No 85015. Retrieved 6 February 2018.CS1 maint: Multiple names: authors list (link)
- McDermid, J.A. (November 1980). "Design and use of Comflex - a hardware-controlled packet switch". IEE Proceedings E - Computers and Digital Techniques. 127 (6). Retrieved 12 February 2018.
- Martin C. Atkins: An Introduction to Ten15 - A personal retrospective. (includes a section about RSRE's Flex)