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A superminicomputer (Interdata 7/32) preserved in a museum

A superminicomputer, colloquially supermini, is a high-end minicomputer.[1] The term is used to distinguish the emerging 32-bit architecture midrange computers introduced in the mid to late 1970s from the classical 16-bit systems that preceded them.[2][3] The development of these computers was driven by the need of applications to address larger memory.[1] The term midicomputer had been used earlier to refer to these systems.[4][5] Virtual memory was often an additional criteria that was considered for inclusion in this class of system.[6] The computational speed of these machines was significantly greater than the 16-bit minicomputers and approached the performance of small mainframe computers.[7] The name has at times been described as a "frivolous" term created by "marketeers" that lacks a specific definition. Describing a class of system has historically been seen as problematic: "In the computer kingdom, taxonomic classification of equipment is more of a black art than a science."[8] There is some disagreement about which systems should be included in this class. The origin of the name is uncertain.[1]

As technology improved rapidly the distinction between minicomputer and superminicomputer performance blurred.[9] Companies that sold mainframe computers began to offer machines in the same price and performance range as superminicomputers.[10] By the mid-1980s microprocessors with the hardware architecture of superminicomputers were used to produce scientific and engineering workstations.[11] The minicomputer industry then declined through the early 1990s.[12] The term is now considered obsolete[13] but still remains of interest for students/researchers of computer history.

Notable companies[edit]

Notable manufacturers of superminicomputers in 1980 included: Digital Equipment Corporation, Perkin-Elmer, and Prime Computer.[14][15] Other makers of systems included SEL/Gould and Data General.[16] Four years later there were about a dozen companies producing a significant number of superminicomputers.[17] (see table below)

DEC VAX-11/780 superminicomputer[18]
Companies and percentage of the superminicomputer market in 1985[17]
Company Percent
International Business Machines (IBM) 41.9
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) 27.6
Data General 6.0
Prime Computer 5.6
Perkin-Elmer, formerly Interdata 3.4
Wang Laboratories 3.4
Gould, formerly SEL 2.6
Hewlett-Packard 2.2
Honeywell 2.2
Harris Computer Systems 1.7
(other) 3.4

Perkin-Elmer spun off their Data Systems Group in 1985 to form Concurrent Computer Corporation which continued making these systems. Nixdorf Computer, Norsk Data, and Toshiba also produced systems.[10]

Significant superminicomputers[edit]

  1. ^ The VAX-11/780 was the standard by which the performance of other supermincomputers and small mainframes were compared.[7][18]
  2. ^ The design engineering of the Data General Eclipse MV/8000 was chronicled in The Soul of a New Machine by Tracy Kidder, a 1981 Pulitzer Prize winning book.[22][23]

External links[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Connolly, James (September 30, 1985). "Superminis: Dynamic machines evolving to new uses". Computerworld. p. SR/4, SR10. Retrieved 5 December 2019. No one can say with certainty who coined the word 'superminicomputer' and to what systems he meant it to apply, but consensus is emerging that a supermini is nothing more than a minicomputer — a high-end mini, but a mini nonetheless.
  2. ^ Flowers, Jeff (1982). "The Use of the 32-Bit Minicomputer for Data Acquisition". IEEE Transactions on Nuclear Science. 29 (1): 927–931. Bibcode:1982ITNS...29..927F. doi:10.1109/TNS.1982.4335992. S2CID 28156759.
  3. ^ a b Supnik, Bob (July–August 2004). "Simulators: Virtual Machines of the Past (and Future)". Queue. ACM. 2 (5): 52–58. doi:10.1145/1016998.1017002. Thirty-two-bit computing broke out of the mainframe category with the introduction of the 'supermini' Interdata 7/32 in the mid-1970s and then the VAX in 1977.
  4. ^ Yates, Edward H. (August 1980). Interrelationships of Technology, System Performance, and Prices for Mini/Midicomputers (PDF) (Report). Office of the Secretary of the Army. p. 3. Archived (PDF) from the original on December 14, 2019. Retrieved 14 December 2019.
  5. ^ Burr, William E.; Gordon, Robert (October 1977). "Selecting a Military Computer Architecture". Computer. Vol. 10, no. 10. IEEE. pp. 16–23. doi:10.1109/C-M.1977.217522.
  6. ^ Storassli, Olaf O.; Vidal, James B.; Jones, Gary K. (1982). "An evaluation of superminicomputers for thermal analysis" (PDF). Computational Aspects of Heat Transfer in Structures. NASA technical memorandum. Washington, DC: NASA (83284): 2. Bibcode:1982caht.nasa..437S.
  7. ^ a b Wallich, Paul (1985). "Minis and mainframes: Superminicomputers push mainframe performance, mainframes operate at supercomputer speeds, and supercomputers reach 400 million operations per second". IEEE Spectrum. 22: 42–44. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.1985.6370525. S2CID 27187801. The manufacturers of the new processors all measure their machines against the venerable Digital Equipment Corp. VAX 11/780, which performs somewhat more than a million operations per second.
  8. ^ Stiefel, Malcolm L. (July 1978). "Superminis: What's In The Name?". Mini-Micro Systems. Vol. 11, no. 7. pp. 29–42. At first blush, the word 'supermini' seems to be a contradiction in terms, like 'bittersweet.' There is a temptation to dismiss it immediately as a frivolous pun - the fruit a fertile Mad Ave. mind. In a sense, this gut reaction has merit; the term was obviously coined by marketeers to describe succinctly a class of machines without being too specific.
  9. ^ Vardalas, John N. (2001-07-27). The Computer Revolution in Canada: Building National Technological Competence. MIT Press. ISBN 9780262264983. As circuit densities and performance increased and prices dropped, the demarcation between minicomputers and superminicomputers and that between low and middle ranges of mainframes began to blur.
  10. ^ a b Supercomputers. Oxford: Elsevier. 1991. p. 3. ISBN 9781483296197.
  11. ^ Joy, W.; Gage, J. (1985). "Workstations in Science". Science. 228 (4698): 467–470. Bibcode:1985Sci...228..467J. doi:10.1126/science.228.4698.467. PMID 17746877. S2CID 9058777.
  12. ^ a b Bell, Gordon (2014). "STARS: Rise and Fall of Minicomputers". Proceedings of the IEEE. 102 (4): 629–638. doi:10.1109/JPROC.2014.2306257. S2CID 21352766.
  13. ^ "superminicomputer". Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press. June 2012. 268008. Now historical.
  14. ^ Steinberg, Michael A. (1979). "Promoting computer literacy". Proceedings of the 7th annual ACM SIGUCCS conference on User services - SIGUCCS '79. p. 83. doi:10.1145/601889.601932. ISBN 0897910060. S2CID 17187367.
  15. ^ Rosenberg, Ronald (30 Apr 1980). "Unveiling a 'supermini'". Boston Globe.
  16. ^ "HP to enter supermini stakes?". Electronics & Power. August 1981. ISSN 2053-7883. Retrieved 5 December 2019.
  17. ^ a b Davis, Bob (22 Jan 1985). "Prime Computer's New Model Heats Up Race To Construct the Fastest Superminicomputer". Wall Street Journal.
  18. ^ a b Zorpette, Glenn (1985). "The beauty of 32 bits: This near-optimum bit width has unprecedented potential for the well-informed designer of microprocessor-based systems". IEEE Spectrum. 22 (9): 65–71. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.1985.6370815. S2CID 34626939.
  19. ^ Rosenberg, Ronald (3 Mar 1983). "...'we never look over our shoulder' — Digital". Boston Globe.
  20. ^ "Firm's Sales on Rebound Thanks to Supermini". Computerworld. Jul 27, 1981.
  21. ^ Rosenberg, Ronald (2 Nov 1985). "Data General does it with class". Boston Globe.
  22. ^ Borins, Sandford; Herst, Beth (2018). "Insanely Great: The Dominant IT Fable". Negotiating Business Narratives. pp. 13–22. doi:10.1007/978-3-319-77923-2_2. ISBN 978-3-319-77922-5.
  23. ^ Kidder, Tracy (1981). "The Microkids and the Hardy Boys: An inside look at how a maverick team from Data General 'rescued' the company by designing a competitive 32-bit superminicomputer in record time". IEEE Spectrum. 18 (9): 48–55. doi:10.1109/MSPEC.1981.6369813. S2CID 5650132.
  24. ^ Rosenberg, Ronald (16 Sep 1983). "2 mid-sized computers are introduced by IBM". Boston Globe. 'They even called the new 4361 a multi-application superminicomputer, a term they never used before.'