If You Need Slightly Less Power

Multiprocessing isn't just for supercomputers and mainframes anymore. Indeed, the technology is rapidly changing the way minicomputers and even workstations are designed -- and the way big companies buy computers.

Take Tootsie Roll Industries Inc. When the candy maker needed a more powerful computer, President Ellen R. Gordon first considered a $1 million Digital Equipment Corp. VAX minicomputer. After shopping around, she settled instead on something just as powerful for a quarter of the price -- a computer from Sequent Computer Systems Inc. that uses 30 of the Intel microprocessors found in most personal computers.

Tootsie Roll's experience is becoming almost common, as multiprocessors take on the jobs that used to be locked up by minicomputers. By 1995, figures Gartner Group Inc., 90% of midrange computers sold -- those that cost $200,000 to $ 700,000 -- will be multiprocessors, up from 25% now. Says Dataquest Inc. analyst Robert Kidd: "It's nothing short of a revolution."

Like massively parallel processing (MPP) systems, multiprocessors employ inexpensive microprocessors. But rather than forcing those processors to cooperate on one large program, as MPPs do, the computer parcels out various jobs among processors, which are each running a copy of the program. That means existing software doesn't have to be rewritten to work on multiprocessors, the way it must be for MPP computers. The result? Something like a dozen bank tellers who can together handle a line of customers faster than one ultraspeedy teller -- but for less money.

That's making multiprocessors attractive for all sorts of work, from tracking DHL's package deliveries to managing US West's cellular billing. In August, Hyatt Hotels dumped the IBM mainframe running its reservation system in favor of a Pyramid Technology multiprocessor supplied by AT&T. Gordon S. Kerr, a Hyatt senior vice-president, says the new machine costs 30% less to run and is easier to program.

ME-TOO MULTIS. Such testimonials have makers of traditional computers rushing to launch multiprocessors. In November, minicomputer maker Hewlett-Packard Co. plans to unveil a four-processor computer, to be followed next year by a 16-processor model. And PC makers such as Compaq Computer Corp. have even begun selling multiprocessors as "servers" to anchor networks of PCs. The competition is taking its toll on the pioneers: Sequent suffered a $23 million third-quarter loss when Unisys Corp. decided to stop reselling Sequent's machines and build its own.

Multiprocessors do have limitations. Because putting too many chips in one machine can result in traffic jams of data, they can't handle the largest jobs, such as reservation systems for major airlines. But for such companies as Tootsie Roll, the computers are a sweet alternative to massive minis.

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