Microsoft adds cloud enablement to 1970s Altair 8800 tech

Back to an era when 'cloud' meant 'it's probably going to rain'

Microsoft got back to its roots this week with another go – this time cloud-enabled – at an Altair 8800 running on Azure Sphere hardware.

Readers with long memories might remember Azure Sphere hardware being used to resurrect the 1970s box in 2018. The latest implementation brings things up to date with new development boards and the inevitable nod to Microsoft's cloud technology.

The 8800 itself is not running in Microsoft's cloud, but on Azure Sphere hardware. An open-source Intel 8080 emulator lurks under the hood, on top of which runs Altair BASIC and CP/M.

Altair BASIC has a special place in Microsoft's heart since it arguably played an important role in kicking off the company all those decades ago. Microsoft used to be famed for its backwards compatibility, although is perhaps a bit less so these days in light of the Windows 11 hardware requirements.

Because this is the new Microsoft, the work behind the scenes is now available to all on GitHub and would make a fine project for anyone seeking to learn about Microsoft's take on IoT tech, with its Linux-based Sphere hardware, while also scratching a retro itch.

The Register spoke to Microsoft Cloud Developer Advocate, Dave Glover, about the project and how it differed from the example shown off in 2018.

"The Altair emulator is still running on Azure Sphere," he said. "Then what's happening is that traffic from the Azure Sphere is going up via the cloud and then down to your browser."

In IoT and Edge fashion, the smarts are on the device (in this case Azure Sphere hardware running the Altair emulator). "We've kind of extended the terminal into a web terminal... we're pumping messages from the Altair, across a switch and into your browser," Glover added.

"When you're typing PRINT "HELLO WORLD", that message is going from the web browser through the switch on the cloud, the MQTT broker, and then back down to the Altair," he explained.

There is no shortage of ways to emulate an Altair 8800, but this represents an interesting demonstration of the technology, and its presence on GitHub invites both inspection and perhaps the odd improvement or two. For Glover, his goal "was to look for interesting patterns" to show off the company IoT technology.

It doesn't look like an MSX is on the cards at the moment.

However, making one's own Altair 8800 (even to the point of recreating the front panel) and controlling it via the cloud is a good deal more fun than many projects we've had a go at over the years. Accidentally learning a bit more about the Mosquitto MQTT broker in the process is also no bad thing.

Something for the weekend? ®

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