Starlink Memories

This lunchtime I put on a black tie and went to the funeral of Stuart Keir, who died suddenly a few weeks ago at the aged of 55. Stuart had only just retired, on grounds of ill health, having worked in IT services for over twenty years here at the University of Sussex. When I first started in 1985 the observational astronomers at Sussex were primarily based at the Royal Greenwich Observatory (RGO), which was at that time located in Herstmonceux and Stuart was one of the staff there supporting the computer systems. The RGO moved to Cambridge in 1990 (for reasons which still escape me) at which point some of the astronomers and support staff relocated permanently to the University of Sussex while others went to Cambridge; Stuart moved to Sussex when the Starlink node was consolidated here following the loss of the RGO.


Stuart Keir

I remember Stuart very well from my life here as a PhD student and then as a postdoc in the Astronomy Unit, both before and after he moved full-time to Falmer campus. He wasn’t always the easiest of characters to work with – he insisted on doing everything his own way, which sometimes conflicted with what the astronomers wanted – but it has to be said that he did usually know better than us about the important things. He also worked extremely hard at his job and was definitely a great help to me during my time at Sussex. I’m very sad that he didn’t have long to enjoy his well-earned retirement.

The news of Stuart’s death made me all nostalgic for my days as a PhD student, when life was definitely much simpler. It also made me look back affectionately at the Starlink system as it was in the 80s. I had been lucky enough to get a series of temporary jobs, between school and university and during summer vacations at university, that involved the use of VAX computers of exactly the same type as that used in Starlink so I was well prepared when I started my PhD. In fact, looking back, I still think the native Virtual Memory System (VMS) and Digital Command Language (DCL) were terrific to work with. Unfortunately it seems that DEC, the company that manufactured the VAX systems, made some unwise business decisions and they lost ground to SUN. During the 1990s there was a rapid phase transition within Starlink from VAX machines to a range of SUN workstations.

Much of the value of Starlink in the old days was the connectivity it provided in what was basically a pre-internet (enabled by DECNET) which allowed sharing of software across all UK astronomy groups. In this sense it was an important step towards Open Science. The growth of the internet however let to a reduced role for Starlink from the mid-1990s onwards. Stuart transferred from Starlink to general IT services at the University of Sussex when Starlink was winding down.

In its heyday, Starlink was a great resource that provided a superb environment for astronomical researchers. It would have been nothing, however, without the dedicated team of Starlink Managers like Stuart who managed the local nodes and worked so help the astronomers that worked there. Data-intensive subjects like astronomy depend as much now as they did then on the hard work of computer support staff, an effort that is in my view not given anything like sufficient recognition by universities and other research institutions.

Rest in Peace, Stuart Keir.

15 Responses to “Starlink Memories”

  1. Is a few weeks between death and funeral normal?

  2. “In fact, looking back, I still think the native Virtual Memory System (VMS) and Digital Command Language (DCL) were terrific to work with.”

    I’m still using them today. VMS still exists, is still maintained, and runs on fast hardware. Yes, even towards the end of DEC VMS was treated badly, then Compaq got VMS when they bought DEC, and HP when they bought VMS, and with time people not familiar with it came to appreciate it less and less. In the biggest VMS news in the last 20 years or so, a new company, VSI, has licensed the VMS source code from HP to support it on Itanium (successor to Alpha, which was successor to VAX) hardware where HP had decided not to, and port it to X86.

    I did have some doubts once, about a year ago, but now I’m sure that VMS will outlive me.

  3. Andrew Liddle Says:

    Very sorry to hear of Stuart’s untimely death, having interacted with him over many years in his various roles in astronomy and then for the university.

    I’m reminded that when I first used LaTeX on the Sussex starlink microvax that he ran (apparently we couldn’t afford a minivax), it took about one minute to compile each page. If you were writing a 20 page paper, you had time for a coffee before it would finish and you could type anything else into your black and white, resolutely non-windowing, terminal. What a machine!

    • telescoper Says:

      It’s worth mentioning that the classic CDm simulations of DEFW were done in 1985 on a Vax.

    • “apparently we couldn’t afford a minivax”

      Not sure if the tongue is in the cheek. There never was a minivax, though VAXes were often termed “minicomputers”. The MicroVAX would, depending on the model, fit under or on a desk.

      Of course, there is a reason that my domain is multivax.

  4. Bryn Jones Says:

    I’m sorry to learn about the death of a former Starlink manager. I offer my sympathies to his family and friends.

    I recall Starlink with great respect. The Starlink system provided hardware, astronomical software, and trained system managers fully aware of the requirements of astronomical computing. The closure of Starlink by PPARC meant the loss of specialised computing support from UK astronomy research groups. Starlink was, in general, excellent.

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