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«Computer RESURRECTION The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society ISSN 0958-7403 Number 43 Summer 2008 Beacon 1963-7: A System Design Ahead of ...»

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The Bulletin of the Computer Conservation Society

ISSN 0958-7403

Number 43 Summer 2008

Beacon 1963-7: A System Design Ahead of its Time?

Michael Knight

Michael Knight recalls Beacon - the pioneering reservation systems developed by British

European Airways (BEA) and UNIVAC. Despite achieving so much with so little, Beacon did

not survive the BOAC (British Overseas Airways Corporation) merger, but its ghostly legacy lingered on for a while in unexpected places.

Beacon was British European Airways’ computer online network, initially developed in 1963-7, to provide a full-scale passenger reservations service. Subsequently, the hardware was upgraded, and further applications added on an integrated basis. Later, following the merger with BOAC to form British Airways, these services were progressively taken over by Beacon’s old rival system Boadicea. The memory of Beacon thus began a long evaporation.

The purpose of this memoir, 40 years later, is to record something of the achievement of the Beacon project team on what was, for a time, Europe’s largest and most ambitious business transaction-processing (TP) system. TP is the norm now, taken for granted in systems of any size, but back then was rare and leading-edge, not even called TP, but ‘real-time’.

The first part outlines the task, and the resources deployed to implement it: hardware, software, time and people. The second part sets out to justify this paper’s bold title, by examples rather than by a systematic description of the design. Some of these examples were subsequently reflected in standard operating system facilities for TP applications; some were not. In the latter case, this has been due to the awesomely rapid developments in computing hardware capabilities, which have allowed the evolution of increasingly function-rich and hardwareprofligate operating systems and other software tools. In the early 1960s, before integrated circuits and the ubiquitous byte, when ferrite core memories were hand-knitted, programmers This article is based on a talk given by the author to the Computer Conservation Society (CCS) in London in February 2008. The talk was attended by several who had worked on this pioneering system. The CCS holds meetings in London and Manchester. The Society’s ‘Computer - Resurrection’ bulletins can be browsed on their website, www.computerconservationsociety.org. This article is reproduced on the VIP CLUB web site with permission from the author and the Computer Conservation Society.

© Page 1 of 9 2008 by Michael Knight and CCS VIP CLUB use with permission, December 2008!

were far from cheap. But hardware was unimaginably expensive by today’s standards, and limited in its capability, and there were definite limits to what could be had in one box, at any price.

The Task In the mid-1960s, BEA carried over 7,000,000 passengers a year, and was 5th largest ‘carrier’ in the world. [BOAC carried over 1,000,000 a year and was ranked 35 th largest]. By today’s airline standards, these numbers are very modest, but they presented very demanding data processing challenges. The real-time solutions to these challenges were the ancestors of today’s allpervading call-centres2.

Airline reservation systems involve up-to-the-minute updating of numerical records of flight occupancy - or, more accurately, of each flight/class/segment/date, in BEA’s case for 11 months ahead. This was known as ‘inventory’. Related to that, alphanumeric passenger record details need to be formed and maintained, a record being for one or more named passengers travelling together on an itinerary of one or more flights. This was known as a PNR - passenger name record. Linking PNRs to relevant flight records were Passenger Name Indices (PNIs).

Bookings, amendments, etc. were typically made by telephone, by airline or travel agents, or by travelers. An added complication was that airlines made bookings with each other, on behalf of travelers, and needed to be kept aware of the booking status of many of each others’ flights, as well as traveler details. The medium for these ‘interline’ bookings and status updates was a jointly-owned international airline message network, SITA, carrying mainly manually-originated tele-printer messages on 75bps asynchronous circuits, the messages conforming [or more often not] to a common protocol called AIRIMP. In the ‘60s, about 60% of BEA’s bookings were interline, i.e. through other airlines.

The reservations task did not much lend itself to the prevalent batch processing of sequential files, and was very labour3-intensive. Passenger records, for example, were maintained manually in card files of hand-written cards. To complicate matters further, flight schedule changes needed to be managed and, ideally, seat availabilities adjusted, through the months prior to a flight in the light of [not very reliable] statistical booking patterns.

To replicate all this work, with a computer system, gave rise to further requirements. It would need to be ‘user-friendly’ [a later buzzword], not least for hundreds of telephone sales clerks. It would need high performance - responses to transactions within 2 seconds - much faster than that was considered to be user-disconcerting. It would need to be extremely reliable and operational 24x7, being crucial to the airline’s core business. In fact, the successful UNIVAC proposal and contract specified, by a carefully constructed formula and with attaching financial penalties, better than 99.97% system availability, around the clock.

When the project began late in 1963, there were a few precedents. American Airlines, with SABRE, and Pan American, with PANAMAC, were implementing similar systems with IBM.

The American spelling of ‘centre’ is ‘center’.

Note, many words in England have an ‘our’ ending versus the American ‘or’ thus labour vice labor.

© Page 2 of 9 2008 by Michael Knight and CCS VIP CLUB use with permission, December 2008!

More relevantly, Eastern Airlines, Capitol and Northwest Airlines had completed numeric or ‘inventory’ implementations with UNIVAC, but not full PNR systems. In 1965, having lost at BEA, International Business Machines (IBM) won a system for BOAC, based on the delusion of a ready-made reservations application package and a serious underestimate of hardware requirements.

The risk and investment cost in these early systems were huge, hardware costs alone amounting to several £millions [in old money]. What were the business motives?

There were several, with varying degrees of plausibility, as the ‘me too’ fashion for such systems spread among the carriers. The original, most measurable motive among the major airlines was cost-reduction, meaning significantly fewer staff in the labour-intensive manual reservations function - which also tended to be the least unionized. This bottom-line benefit was easily measured and predicted.

Better load-factors, i.e. more bums on seats per flight, was another benefit likely from greatly improved inventory control, but less readily quantifiable, because of other contributory factors.

So, too, were enhanced customer service and the advertised boast of leading-edge computer technology: expensive, but cheaper than new aircraft.

Hardware The heart of Beacon’s hardware complement comprised two UNIVAC 490 mainframe computers with fixed head and moving head drums amounting to 700 million characters.

The UNIVAC 490 had 32k words of 30-bit core memory, addressable as half, third or fifth words, the latter representing a six-bit character when required. The single-address instruction set was relatively limited, but powerful, including several ‘replace’ commands and the ability to test an arithmetic result in various ways and ‘skip’ or not the following instruction. Instructions had 15-bit addresses, modifiable by any of seven index [B] registers, while A and Q were arithmetic registers. Add time was 4.8 µsecs, and average execution time was six µsecs. There was no memory protection - seen as an advantage by performance-conscious 490 fans, provided programs behaved properly.

Normally, most of the peripheral equipment was attached to the currently on-line 490 computer.

All subsystems were individually switchable between the on and off-line computers by means of manually operated switch buttons.

Over 400 ‘agent set terminals’, of which about 200, in 1967, were installed in nine remote locations, were connected in groups via buffer processors, small minicomputers used as early cluster controllers. The agent sets, manufactured by Sperry Gyroscope, comprised a tele-printer, keypad and upright keypad/display, onto which an appropriate route schedule slide was inserted;

the slide was hole-coded to transmit the route details. The tele-printer component was principally used in the second, passenger records phase of the project. In subsequent reservations systems, and in later Beacon applications, these relatively slow and cumbersome terminals were replaced with more flexible VDUs.

© Page 3 of 9 2008 by Michael Knight and CCS VIP CLUB use with permission, December 2008!

The hardware occupied an air-conditioned computer room of some 6,000 square feet on the third floor of the West London Terminal on Cromwell Road, West London. Most of the local agent sets were located on the fourth floor of the building, in an area of some 18,000 square feet, supported by automatic telephone call distributors.

A round-the-clock team of 15 UNIVAC hardware maintenance engineers watched over the installation, to minimise4 breakdown times.

Software The 490 came with REX, Real-time Executive; totally inadequate for Beacon’s requirements.

The system was therefore built on a home-made Executive, CONTORTS. Other significant project-developed tools included an interpretive on-line transaction trace, a general utilities system (GUS) and an online training mode for terminal operators.


The hardware costs alone were huge; around £3M in 1963 - upwards of £40M in today’s money {sic 208}. It was, therefore, important that the benefits were real and measurable, and that the return on investment began as soon as possible. This meant that the initial application, passenger reservations, had a phased development. First, the inventory, or numeric control of flights bookings, was developed and cut over to live operation, in April 1965, delivering the benefitsof improved load factors and staffing efficiencies. Then the ‘PNR’, or passenger records processing, together with handling of interline traffic through the SITA network, was developed, and cut over in stages. A third phase extended the real-time service to numerous remote offices in the UK and mainland Europe, and eventually on-line ticketing was added. Subsequently, other related applications were added, on an integrated basis.

This may seem obvious, commonplace in Information Technology (IT) projects, even. Back then, it was not. Once the first phase was implemented, it was committed to the core of the airline’s business - 24x7. Adding major enhancements securely to such an operational environment is not easy, particularly when, as with PNR, it involves the rolling transfer of millions of existing paper passenger records, entered by keyboarding, while those records continued to be subject to additions, cancellations, or amendments. Then add the requirement to train several hundreds of user staff in the additional features of the system, and to incentivise their contribution of huge amounts of overtime for the keyboarding task The cutover of the second, PNR phase, occurred in 1966, and was a substantial project in itself, more organisational than technical. It was planned for Easter. Bank holidays were particularly useful, being long, and light in on-line reservations activity; plenty of time for expensive sales clerks’ overtime, and sleepless nights for key development project staff.

It failed. The phase 1 implementation was sadly and successfully reinstated for the Tuesday morning. For various reasons, it failed again, every Bank Holiday until the end of the summer.

Even then, subtle but stubborn bugs persisted including one which struck every morning at peak In Britain it is not unusual to spell some words with ‘s’ versus ‘z’ used in America, these are not spell check errors!

–  –  –

time in the heart of COHORTS which added a ‘one’ randomly to the contents of a word anywhere in core memory.

People The development project team, of around 25-30 people, was roughly evenly divided between UNIVAC and BEA staff. It was divided into teams responsible for specific parts of the application and system software, from three to six in each. Team leaders came from either company, appointed on the basis of perceived contribution, in terms of skill and effort. Until the reservations development was successfully completed and signed off, Univac retained system responsibility and project management, along with the challenging contractual obligations on performance and availability. The three-phase reservations development took about 80 manyears. This is somewhat misleading, since hours worked would become, for some, quite brutal, or heroic, [according to taste], and not respectful of public holidays, weekends or private life.

UNIVAC’s project management was vigorous, some might even say brutal. Mindful of the contractual obligations and of the finite project headcount, it was not tolerant of noncommitment or technical inadequacy, and this sometimes extended to BEA as well as UNIVAC team members. On the other hand, contribution was remembered and proportionally rewarded, sometimes long afterwards, by promotion and/or recruitment [in the case of several BEA staff], and/or recommendation elsewhere.

The philosophy, later articulated [within ICL!], was that the project goal [on- time, to specification and budget] was the only thing which mattered to the project team. Nothing, from fire on the site to strike action to bureaucratic obstruction in either organisation would be allowed to get in its way. If either host organisation found the project’s activity disruptive, well, they should not have instigated it; substantial projects are, of their nature, disruptive.

Systems analysts in BEA originally determined the requirements of the reservations system.

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