From mainframes to high-speed networks, Tompkins has seen it all
From mainframes to high-speed networks, Tompkins has seen it allMarch 12, 2004Judy Holmesjlholmes@syr.edu
The memory of the first personal computer to arrive on the Syracuse University campus-an IBM 5100, 25 years ago-brings a faint smile to Jim Tompkins’ face. “We had one on loan at Skytop. It was expensive, weighed something like 30 or 40 pounds, and it wasn’t something you could use like today’s PCs,” Tompkins says. “It was designed to write programs, but it was exciting.”
Tompkins will retire from his position as executive director of Computing and Media Services on March 31 after 33 years of service to the University. In many ways, the story of his time at the University is also a chronology of the history of computing at SU and around the world. Tompkins began his career when people programmed room-sized mainframe computers with stacks of paper punch cards created with a keypunch machine. Now, he is retiring a little more than a year after the University’s last mainframe computer-an IBM Multiprise 2003-107-was retired.
“Back in those days, the computing power on campus was located within the Academic Computing Center in Machinery Hall,” Tompkins says. “That’s all changed. Our department no longer has the fastest or most powerful computers on campus. Today, our primary role is networking-creating and supporting the infrastructure that interconnects the thousands of machines all over campus and allows them to communicate with the rest of the world.”
A graduate of the University of Maine, Tompkins’ first role at the University was as a systems programmer in the Academic Computing Center. “I was one of those guys on the second floor of Machinery Hall who was responsible for keeping the operating system running,” he says. Computing growth was slow in the “old days.” Tompkins arrived on campus in 1971-14 years after the University acquired its first mainframe computer. In 1971, the University owned a total of five mainframe computers-three were managed by the Academic Computing Center, and two others were used for administrative computing. But the winds of change were blowing in the computer world. By 1975, Bill Gates and his Harvard buddy Paul Allen had sold their first computer operating system-BASIC-to MITS (Micro Instrumentation and Telemetry Systems), the makers of the microcomputer Altair; and Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak began building the first Apple computer in their garage.
As minicomputers began to make their way on campus, Tompkins moved away from academic computing and into the University’s administrative computing department, where he designed programs for the mainframe systems that were used for the University’s business operations. In 1975, he was named director of Administrative Data Processing. “Back then, we designed, wrote, and maintained our own legacy systems,” Tompkins says. “It was like building your own car. The systems were very specific, one-of-a-kind programs that were used only by SU.”
A period of rapid technological and organizational change both inside and outside of the University began during that late 1980s and continued through the new millennium. The proliferation of thousands of desktop PCs across campus, the birth of the Internet, e-mail, servers, and such networking hardware as routers, switches, firewalls, and fiber optic cables, revolutionized the way the business and academic sides of University computing operated.
Mainframe computers and homegrown legacy systems slowly gave way to corporate-designed enterprise administrative systems, and PeopleSoft was introduced on campus to enhance functionality and help resolve the Y2K problems inherent to the old systems. On the academic computing side, computing power was transferred away from mainframes to desktops and departmental supercomputers.
In 1992, the Academic Computing Center merged with Administrative Data Processing to form Computing Services, and Tompkins, who helped plan and carry out the transition, was named executive director of the new department. Two years later, the Department of Audio Visual Support Services merged with Computing Services and the department was renamed Computing and Media Services.
Tompkins leaves a field that is constantly reinventing itself. Computers are shrinking in size and increasing in power, networking speeds are increasing exponentially, and distinctions between voice, data, and image transmission, and print and broadcast media are becoming increasingly blurred.
“By the end of the decade, one device will be on our desks that will serve our voice, video, and data communications needs,” Tompkins predicts. “Telephones, as they exist today, will become obsolete.”