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The first VAX model sold was the VAX-11/780, which was introduced on October 25, 1977 at the Digital Equipment Corporation's Annual Meeting of Shareholders.[10] Bill Strecker, C. Gordon Bell's doctoral student at Carnegie Mellon University, was responsible for the architecture.[11] Many different models with different prices, performance levels, and capacities were subsequently created. VAX superminicomputers were very popular in the early 1980s.

DEC VAX 11/780-5 computer.

For a while the VAX-11/780 was used as a standard in CPU benchmarks. It was initially described as a one-MIPS machine, because its performance was equivalent to an IBM System/360 that ran at one MIPS, and the System/360 implementations had previously been de facto performance standards. The actual number of instructions executed in 1 second was about 500,000, which led to complaints of marketing exaggeration. The result was the definition of a "VAX MIPS," the speed of a VAX-11/780; a computer performing at 27 VAX MIPS would run the same program roughly 27 times faster than the VAX-11/780. Within the Digital community the term VUP (VAX Unit of Performance) was the more common term, because MIPS do not compare well across different architectures. The related term cluster VUPs was informally used to describe the aggregate performance of a VAXcluster. (The performance of the VAX-11/780 still serves as the baseline metric in the BRL-CAD Benchmark, a performance analysis suite included in the BRL-CAD solid modeling software distribution.) The VAX-11/780 included a subordinate stand-alone LSI-11computer that performed microcode load, booting, and diagnostic functions for the parent computer. This was dropped from subsequent VAX models. Enterprising VAX-11/780 users could therefore run three different Digital Equipment Corporation operating systems: VMS on the VAX processor, and either RSX-11M or RT-11 on the LSI-11.

The VAX went through many different implementations. The original VAX 11/780 was implemented in TTL and filled a four-by-five-foot cabinet[12] with a single CPU. CPU implementations that consisted of multiple ECL gate array or macrocell array chips included the VAX 8600 and 8800 superminis and finally the VAX 9000 mainframe class machines. CPU implementations that consisted of multiple MOSFET custom chips included the 8100 and 8200 class machines. The VAX 11-730 and 725 low end machines were built using bit-slice components.

VAX 11/750

The MicroVAX I represented a major transition within the VAX family. At the time of its design, it was not yet possible to implement the full VAX architecture as a single VLSI chip (or even a few VLSI chips as was later done with the V-11 CPU of the VAX 8200/8300). Instead, the MicroVAX I was the first VAX implementation to move some of the more complex VAX instructions (such as the packed decimal and related opcodes) into emulation software. This partitioning substantially reduced the amount of microcode required and was referred to as the "MicroVAX" architecture. In the MicroVAX I, the ALU and registers were implemented as a single gate-array chip while the rest of the machine control was conventional logic.

A full VLSI (microprocessor) implementation of the MicroVAX architecture arrived with the MicroVAX II's 78032 (or DC333) CPU and 78132 (DC335) FPU. The 78032 was the first microprocessor with an on-board memory management unit[13] The MicroVAX II was based on a single, quad-sized processor board which carried the processor chips and ran the MicroVMS or Ultrix-32 operating systems. The machine featured 1 MB of on-board memory and a Q22-bus interface with DMA transfers. The MicroVAX II was succeeded by many further MicroVAX models with much improved performance and memory.

Further VLSI VAX processors followed in the form of the V-11, CVAX, CVAX SOC ("System On Chip", a single-chip CVAX), Rigel, Mariah and NVAX implementations. The VAX microprocessors extended the architecture to inexpensive workstations and later also supplanted the high-end VAX models. This wide range of platforms (mainframe to workstation) using one architecture was unique in the computer industry at that time. Sundry graphics were etched onto the CVAX microprocessor die. The phrase CVAX... when you care enough to steal the very best was etched in broken Russian as a play on a Hallmark Cards slogan, intended as a message to Soviet engineers who were known to be both purloining DEC computers for military applications and reverse engineering their chip design.[14][15]

In DEC's product offerings, the VAX architecture was eventually superseded by RISC technology. In 1989 DEC introduced a range of workstations and servers that ran Ultrix, the DECstation and DECsystem respectively, based on processors that implemented the MIPS architecture. In 1992 DEC introduced their own RISC instruction set architecture, the Alpha AXP (later renamed Alpha), and their own Alpha-based microprocessor, the DECchip 21064, a high performance 64-bit design capable of running OpenVMS.

In August 2000, Compaq announced that the remaining VAX models would be discontinued by the end of the year.[16] By 2005 all manufacturing of VAX computers had ceased, but old systems remain in widespread use.[17]

The Stromasys CHARON-VAX and SIMH software-based VAX emulators remain available.