End results versus what's inside the black box

March 12, 2010

One of the divisions in technology is between people who mostly care about the end results and people who care (sometimes very passionately) about what is inside the black boxes that they use. The former sort say things like 'the Pentium is the best-performing CPU right now'; the latter say things like 'the SPARC architecture is far more elegant than the ugly hacks of the x86'.

(This division is not exclusive to computer hardware, but computer hardware and especially CPU architecture is a common hotbed of people who care a lot about it.)

I used to think that I was more the latter sort of person than the former, but either that changed over time or I was lying to myself. These days, it's pretty clear I'm much more someone who cares about the ends than someone who cares about what's inside the box. I certainly don't make my technology decisions (even for my personal machines) based on the elegance of the hardware; by now, I care far more about how well it runs things that I care about.

(For example, the x86 architecture is a horrible mess but you know what, I don't care. The compiler worries about the ugliness and the limited register set, and Intel and AMD have consistently delivered the affordable performance that all of the RISC vendors failed to manage. I would be happier if it had been the other way around, but I don't feel very strongly about it any more.)

This obviously strongly influences my attitudes on things like Unix workstation mythology. Because I care more about end results these days, I'm not much taken with arguments that old Unix workstation hardware, old RISC chips, and so on were intrinsically superior to today's PC hardware because they were more elegant and less of a horrible kludge; since what I care most about is how well the resulting machine runs my Unix environment, I prefer today's PCs, warts and all. I know that there are people who don't hold this view and who feel strongly enough about it to make different choices, but in many ways we're on different sides of a fairly large gulf, one that there's very little point in arguing over.

(Instead I argue that the Unix workstations were less elegant than people remember and had their own share of warts and kludges.)

It's worth noting that I am not an absolutist on this. After all, I'm using slower PC hardware because it's what my operating system supports with open source drivers, and not using various attractive programs because they're not open source or they're just ugly inside, and so on, so clearly I still care about the details to some degree. Sysadmins are somewhat biased in this anyways, because for us the end results include things like 'can we support this and troubleshoot it or is it going to cause us heartburn at 3am', and these practically require us to peek inside the black boxes and care about the contents to some degree.

Written on 12 March 2010.
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Last modified: Fri Mar 12 01:27:47 2010
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