A neat book I just finished is Showstopper!  The Breakneck Race to Create Windows NT and the Next Generation at Microsoft, by G. Pascal Zachary.  Until recently, I didn’t even know this book existed.  It’s a fascinating story, and I recommend it.

The book tells the great story of Dave Cutler, an OS architect at Digital Equipment Corp, whom Bill Gates wooed to come to Microsoft after DEC management decided not to pursue Cutler’s ideas for a next generation OS.  Cutler had designed the PDP-11’s RSX-11M OS as well as the DEC VAX’s VMS OS and so was considered without-peer when it came to OS design and development.  At the time, (1988) MS-DOS was all the rage, but Gates realized that for the personal computer to move forward and take advantage of cutting edge technologies such as the new Intel 386, it needed a “real” OS:  something with preemptive multi-tasking, a flat memory model, security, multi-user capabilities, a journaling file system, etc.  Dave Cutler, and the lieutenants he brought with him from DEC, delivered Windows NT, and this book tells the story.

The book reads like a software engineering version of Soul of a New Machine.  It’s accessible to the general reader, but software developers will especially appreciate its stories.  There is talk about the kernel, networking and graphics subsystems, user interface elements, debugging, documentation, plus tight deadlines, company politics, and fun personalities.  Some of the people in the book who led the development effort for NT are still at Microsoft today!  For example, S. Somasegar, and even Dave Cutler himself never left.

Mike Abrash

A name that might be familiar to BIOS programmers is that of Mike Abrash, a guy that gets tossed around as one of the best x86 assembly programmers of all time.  He was the author of Zen of Assembly Language, considered a classic text on the subject.  Anyway, the NT graphics team was having big problems getting their code mature and performing fast enough.  They actually implemented the graphics subsystem in C++ rather than C; quite a risky step to take considering this was the 1988-1993 timeframe, and there was no such thing as a C++ standard.  Lucky for them, Microsoft hired Mike Abrash, who jumped in and saved the day.  The book beautifully describes how Abrash implemented a Super VGA driver when the NT plan only called for 16-color VGA, and then went ahead and fixed the code’s performance problems.  The book concludes the episode by saying:
Finally the graphics group had something to crow about.  People long had complained about the group’s sluggish gains in speed.  They had all but given up hope of dramatic improvements.  Then, as one teammate said, “a miracle happened:  Mike Abrash.”
Mike Abrash is still the go-to-guy for performance tuning as evidenced by this recent (2007) email from none other than id Software’s John Carmack.

An Ironic Comment

At one point the author is talking about the personality of Bill Gates.  It’s ironic that he describes him this way:
Which was the real Bill Gates?  The richest American by virtue of his roughly seven billion dollars in Microsoft stock, Gates was an object of envy and awe, paranoia and adulation.  These strong emotions made a balanced assessment of his actions impossible.  Anyway, the choice between saint or sinner was an illusion; these were cartoon images of Gates.  The real Gates resembled a big-city political boss; more Richard Daley than Rockefeller.
Funny that Zachary calls him “more Richard Daley than Rockefeller”—I don’t think anyone would say that today, since Gates is devoting his fortune and time to philanthropy much the same way Rockefeller did!  It’s a fact that Rockefeller spent a longer portion of his life in the philanthropy business than in the oil business.  I think the same will be said of Bill Gates one day.

Crazy Editing

My copy of the book was published by a company called E-Reads, who weren’t the original publishers, and who also don’t seem to be in existence any more.  Anyway, every so often throughout the book there are quirks to the layout, like newlines inserted in the middle of sentences.  It doesn’t really take away from the story, but it is irksome.
A real embarrassment is the back cover.  The second sentence says “Driven by the legendary Bruce Cutler…”—the entire book revolves around DAVE Cutler, but on the dust jacket they call him Bruce!  How did such an error escape notice?  “Dave Cutler” is the protagonist and appears on virtually every page of the book, yet they messed up his name on the back cover!   Anyway, it obviously doesn’t change the story of NT, but I thought it was worth pointing out.


In closing I would simply repeat that this is a neat and highly recommended read.  It takes the reader back to a time when Microsoft was at the forefront of what was happening in technology, much like the Facebooks or Goggles of today.  A must-read for all software engineers and systems programmers!

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