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Hardware Technology

Living Fossils: Old Tech That Just Won't Die 388

jfruh writes "You might think that flat files, VAXen, and punch card readers are things of the past — and you're right, for the most part. But here and there, these fossilized technologies have found places where they can survive in production use."
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Living Fossils: Old Tech That Just Won't Die

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  • Technology (Score:5, Interesting)

    by girlintraining ( 1395911 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:37AM (#39950563)

    I've never understood why people think that just because something is newer makes it better. We may mostly be on high speed internet connections running through cable, or xDSL, wireless, or other technologies, but that doesn't mean the forerunner to those technologies are without purpose anymore. Modems are still used in ATMs because landlines are incredibly cheap to install and not a lot of data needs to be exchanged. Same thing with fax machines; Despite scanners and e-mail, many courthouses won't accept scanned documents -- but they will accept faxed documents. Amusingly, most of those fax machines are paired to document management systems that convert them back into digital files (ie, PDFs) for processing. The reason for this is not immediately obvious: Many jurisdictions have laws stating a faxed copy of a document is legally the same as the original, but lack similar laws saying a digitally signed or submitted document is valid.

    The list goes on. So don't just assume a technology should be sunset because of technical reasons -- there are often human factors to consider as well.

  • B-52s (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:39AM (#39950577)

    That's nothing. We're still flying B-52's with wire-wrapped computers. None of this modern solder.

  • Re:Technology (Score:5, Interesting)

    by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:45AM (#39950613)
    I used to work on an Alphanumeric paging system. We used 2400 baud because the time necessary to negotiate a higher-speed connection was far longer than the time to negotiate and then transmit ~240 characters at 2400 baud.

    Fast forward to 2001 or so, and the general decline of paging. We were attempting to migrate from physical serial port expanders connected to physical modems, connected to a breakout cable from a T1 CSU/DSU, and we tried Equinox digital modem emulators- that integrated a single connection to a T1 CSU/DSU without all of the physical. The problem was the the Equinox gear wouldn't reliably negotiate that slow, and often would lock up the virtual serial port, rendering it useless until the card was reinitialized through a cold reboot. Equinox was more interested in giving us our money back than they were in fixing their hardware, but we did finally manage to convince them, after much effort, to put work into fixing it.
  • MicroVAXen (Score:5, Interesting)

    by n6kuy ( 172098 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:15AM (#39950761)

    Heh. Yeah, we still use several of those here in Los Alamos as part of the control system for our linear proton accelerator. They work and are pretty reliable, though I suspect we'll be up the creek if one of 'em goes bad.

  • Re:Hardly obsolete. (Score:5, Interesting)

    by nospam007 ( 722110 ) * on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:16AM (#39950769)

    "In 2009, I worked on porting a fairly lengthy program from VAX to Alpha in OpenVMS Fortran. Why? Because it took 20 years to get the program just right and it works perfectly for the suited task. Why throw away a perfectly functional program just because the VAX is dying?"

    I'm a railway dispatcher in my daytime job and all the new installations in Europe (ESTW) from Siemens, Alcatel etc still use OpenVMS to run the systems. It uses tons of modems talking to the equipment in the field, another item that's hard to come by nowadays.
    It was developed in the 70ies and runs now on Intel machines only because they can't get any more MicroVAXes or Alphas
    But lots of installations still have those and they run flawlessly.

  • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:43AM (#39950879)

    It often turns out it is NOT doing the job as effectively as you might think. I've seen people jump though some amazing hoops dealing with old technology because "It gets the job done." Ok maybe so but that isn't the question you should ask. The question is if new technology would get the job done better to the extent it is worth the price.

    A simple example is with desktop PCs. Various things can take a really long time on old PCs, like formatting a document for print, or even booting or opening a program. Time is wasted waiting for that. At some point it becomes worth it to get something newer and faster. The time spent transitioning to the new system and the money spent on it are worth it in the time savings during use.

    I've really seen this in the world of audio creation/editing. On 1996, when I started playing with it, it was all offline, you'd choose something and it would render laboriously out to disk, then you'd listen to the result (there were pro systems that could do it realtime, not desktops though). I could spend 10 minutes waiting to hear the result of an EQ, and then have to undo it and try again. Now it is all realtime, non-destructive. I make changes and they happen as I make them.

    Also there's the simple maintenance factor of old systems. It can end up costing a ton to try to keep them running, or you have a ticking time bomb situation where you are relying on something that really can't be fixed if it breaks (or even both). An enormous amount of resources both monetary and time can be poured in keeping old systems running on the grounds of "it just works".

    Now I'm not saying toss everything old all the time, but some real cost/value analysis needs to be done, not this inertia of "What we have works and it'd be expensive to replace it." I really came to appreciate that with the Y2K stuff. Place I was working at had an ancient billing system, no way to upgrade it. So they had a new one written. Talk about an amazing difference. It now run as a Java app on any computer, rather than needing to use these old dedicated terminals, it was fast, it could do all kinds of things they'd wanted, it eliminated things that had to be done by hand before and so on. So worth it, even without the Y2K thing. However the old system had survived "Because it works, and replacing it would be expensive."

  • Re:Technology (Score:5, Interesting)

    by NotBorg ( 829820 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:58AM (#39950943)

    I'll take stainless steel and cast iron over teflon any day for my cooking needs. I mow my lawn without gas or electricity. I think that puppets in '80s movies feel more real than the most advanced computer animated crap of today. I'll be damned if I purchase music that isn't on a CD. DVDs are just fine for movies (I migrated from tape for good reason but blue ray simply isn't worth the hoopla). I still don't give a flying fuck about 3D... in fact I prefer movies that are not be in 3D. I look for yard sales in senior communities because I know that that those 50-year-old cooking utensils are still going to out last that stuff at Walmart.

    Yada yada get off my lawn, but I'll be damned if I'll run anything less than the most recent kernel and gcc.

  • About the IRS (Score:5, Interesting)

    by BenEnglishAtHome ( 449670 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @02:09AM (#39950979)

    The section in the article about the Individual Master File was close to correct. It's not that it couldn't be accessed but once a week, though. There was the Integrated Data Retrieval System that could access it any time. Unfortunately, it was only updated once a week. The updates to the IMF were input via IDRS, so that sometimes led to some weirdness with the two being out of sync. There was an entire list of "cycles" that you needed to memorize as you processed work so that you'd know "If I do this, now, how long will it be before it actually shows up on the system I need it to be on?"

    Then there was the BMF (Business Master File) for businesses.

    Then things get weird. There's a Master File called the Non-Master File (NMF) for return information sufficiently rare that it's just not linked to everything else. Congress can come up with new statutes that require new forms far faster than they can be programmed into databases that properly link every relationship between every line. The really small-volume, low-priority stuff goes in the NMF. A bit over a decade ago it wasn't accessible except by sending off a paper request for a printed transcript. Now snapshots are viewable via IDRS but those pesky cycles are a far more complex problem.

    OK, now, shall we get into the EPMF (Employee Plans Master File) or any of the other "master" files? (I once asked why any file deserved to be called "master" if there were other "masters". The programmers in attendance at the meeting were not amused.)

    Enough. IT at the IRS was fun and crazy-making, challenging and boring, something I loved that ultimately was decimated by politics and broke my heart. I'm glad I saw it back in the best of days but I'm awfully glad I'm retired from that place now.

  • by fotoguzzi ( 230256 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @02:23AM (#39951055)
    Years ago there was a quarterly magazine called Inventions and Technology that one received when they purchased a General Motors auto. Each issue devoted a page to some ancient piece of machinery/equipment that was still in use decades after it should have been thrown away.

    The gist of the article was always the same: it still works just fine and we would never make something as nice today. I wish I could find that magazine somewhere.
  • I've got some... (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Gordonjcp ( 186804 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @03:05AM (#39951231) Homepage

    At work, we use an old Toshiba T1100 laptop to program 20-odd-year-old radio equipment. Nothing newer will run the DOS-based software, and the programming cable requires a proper +12/-12V swing from the RS232 port. I've often thought that it can't be too hard to reverse-engineer the format of the data in the little 256-byte EEPROMs that store the channel information.

    On the MicroVAX, there is one large petrochem site I visit quite often that has several MicroVAX 3100s tucked away in a rack controlling various processes. They are *pristine*, looks like they've been racked up, the cabinet door closed, and left for what, 20 years? Closer to 30? They still have the little plastic protective film on the badge on the front...

  • Re:Technology (Score:4, Interesting)

    by the_humeister ( 922869 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @03:30AM (#39951327)

    I only buy my music on wax cylinders. I hand-crank the engine in my car to get it started. And these new-fangled "computers"? Give me an abacus and a logarithm table, and I'm all set.

  • by aglider ( 2435074 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @04:27AM (#39951595) Homepage

    As well as of software and hardware design quality.
    I mean, if you have seen the pictures, you'd not say it's a 60 yo machine. I'd say it's 20 yo. An 8088 class machine, for example.
    The knobs still have a well readable lettering on. There is not a lake of exhaust oil on the floor or burns on the metal shields.
    Meaning that the mechanical and electrical construction has been designed to last and for ease of maintenance.
    My oldest machine has been a IBM (yeah!) Tower i486 DX4-100 deployed in 1995 as a DNS server and retired in 2005 for a total MB failure.
    10 years at 24/7 of operations. That's it.
    Current hardware (and also software, I fear) is not done to last. Is done for lasting revenues. Which can actually be the opposite.
    I'm not saying it's a bad thing. I'm just saying how it seems to me to be.

  • SuperPET (Score:4, Interesting)

    by cartman ( 18204 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @05:46AM (#39951849)

    I had a college professor who still used an 8KB Commodore PET. He stored his typed notes on cassette. On occasion he would print out a handout using his 8-pin dot matrix printer and then mimeograph it. I have no idea how he still got printer ink for the printer.

    Unfortunately the pet only had enough ram to store a few pages, so if any document was longer than that, you had to establish a new file. Many of his handouts ended abruptly after a few pages.

    Someone once tried to convince him to get a new computer. He responded: "You're talking to me about a new computer as if I NEEDED it."

  • Re:Technology (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Kjella ( 173770 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @05:46AM (#39951851) Homepage

    The old days were simpler, not better. When one has less choices it's often easier to choose.

    And simpler to operate, simpler to repair, the simple life is all but gone. Just to take one example, cutting lumber. Today if you want to do it professionally you're probably operating some kind of advanced machinery, that's what they use in all but the most inaccessible places that'll chop it down and chop it up without you ever leaving the operator's chair. One step below that is what we've used, a chain saw and a gas operated cleaver, sure we're more manual but still heavily machine-assisted. But I've still seen the long saw they used before that rusting in the shed and back then they cleaved it with an axe.

    I mean it's hard labor, but its not particularly complicated labor. Saw, saw, chop, chop and that was perfectly acceptable work. No education required, hell practically no training required either. Here's an axe, go chop. Same if it was making hay or collecting potatoes or vegetables or whatever else manual labor. Of course then you'd work forever to produce the same firewood we produce with a chainsaw and the pros are that much faster than us again. You can't compete the old way and we'd all be a lot poorer so obviously the current way is "better", objectively speaking.

    All the same, everything that's simple has been mechanized, computerized, automated and in many cases miniaturized to the point where there's nothing a layman can do about it. Either it's only professional shops with tools or more and more frequently it's just to throw away when it breaks because there's a million of them coming off a production line rather than trying to fix one unit. Same with the home, you call in a plumber or electrician or whatever, the car needs an auto mechanic because everything is too complicated to do yourself.

    I suppose it's inevitable that we'll all have to specialize to improve the productivity overall, but I feel people are increasingly narrow. This is the one complicated thing that I've learned to do, and for that I make money to hire people to do all the complicated things they do. And if you're not cut out to that, well then there's very few simple jobs left. And there's just going to be less and less places where you just need a warm body.

  • by retroworks ( 652802 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @07:56AM (#39952389) Homepage Journal

    The award goes to CRT (cathode ray tube) displays, which are built like battleships. They work for 20 years. There has been a hoax promoted by environmental "watchdogs" that the CRTs are being hammered apart for copper, and California went as far as to pay 48 cents per pound (taxpayer money) to make sure all the CRTs are broken when turned in for collection, based on the myth that the display devices become obsolete by Moore's law.

    The EPA's methodology for calculating recycling rates is as follows: Find annual production (e.g. plastic milk bottles, newspapers), input lifespan, and calculate waste generation. But they put "Moore's Law" in for the "lifespan" of tech equipment... e.g. that CRT monitors have a 3 year lifespan. They assumed that "replacement rate" (new purchases of hardware) was an indication of lifespan, even though the growth of internet use worldwide was in double digits, and that all the old CRT monitors, millions and millions, were being dumped in primitive wasteful conditions.

    Try applying the same methodology to used cars... that replacement purchase equals lifespan. OMG!!! We must have a massive death star of used cars crowding our landfills!!

    The growth of the internet has been 10 times the rate, for the past decade, in nations with per capita incomes of $3-4K per year. They can't afford brand new display devices and were purchasing the CRTs for the past decade. Someone made up a completely bogus statistic that they were being burned in landfills in the developing world, something now completely disproven (the photos of TVs at the dumps in Nigeria were from NIGERIANS, who have had TV since the 1980s.. the scrap in Guiyu China comes predominantly from Hong Kong, Shenzhen, and Guangzhuo). The story of the CRT is finally winding down as LCDs get cheaper and cheaper, but it has been amazing the mythology and hoaxes spread about CRT exports during the past decade. []

  • by Medievalist ( 16032 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @11:31AM (#39954931)

    Cast iron bathtubs, particularly antique ones, are very desirable and command high prices if they are in good condition.

    I'm refitting a bathroom in a 160+ year old house. The bathroom was originally installed in the late 1930s. The prices for original-quality parts are jaw dropping - you can easily pay $1200 for a faucet set (although I don't).

    In the trades, the old stuff that has survived is incredibly high quality, for the most part. Victorian machined brass plumbing, for example, is awesome! I have replaced worn out ABS, bristol and polybutalene that was attached to 90 year old figured and threaded brass in perfect condition. PEX is nice but it will never match hand-cut victorian red brass.

    Something similar is true in computing; you see old VMS and PDP systems running all over the place, because of their extreme cost effectiveness. Unix derived OSes dominate cutting edge hardware, despite Unix's age and shortcomings. It's survival of the fittest - DECnet IV was better than DECnet/OSI, so almost nobody upgraded, even though DECnet IV was not perfect.

  • Re:Technology (Score:4, Interesting)

    by mcgrew ( 92797 ) * on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:51PM (#39957185) Homepage Journal

    The old days were simpler, not better.

    Some things were simpler, but some weren't, because we have technology that simplifies things. Take your car, for example. No cruise control, driving a long trip is lots simpler, you don't even have to touch the gas pedal. Farther back, say when my dad was a kid, just getting the damned thing started was a chore. Set the choke by hand, get out, crank start it manually, jump back in before it died because the choke made it run rich and readjust the choke... and that was even simpler than preparing the wagon and horses like they had to do previously. Take cooking; I asked my mom how to make gravy and she said she stopped making gravy years ago, now there's instant gravy that you mix with water and heat, and it tastes every bit as good as what she made by hand. Microwave ovens make cooking simpler. Computers make doing your taxes and balancing your checkbook simpler. Photos -- you used to have to open the camera, put film in, take a roll of pictures and change the film, take it and get the film developed, go back the next day for your pictures, then off to a post office to mail them to grandma. Now you just whip out your phone, shoot, and email it. Simple.

    As to better? Only in a few ways were the old days better. Before 1970 the air and rivers and lakes were filthy and unhealthy, few had air conditioning, there were no microwaves, VCRs, personal computers, cell phones, robots, velcro, flat screen TVs, ABS, air bags, GPS, ziplock bags... not better by any means. And God help you if you were black or gay back then.

    As to "cobbled on," tech has always been like that. Pottery making was an offshoot of weaving; the first pots were straw baskets that were covered in clay and burned in a kiln. The first cars were merely wagons with a gasoline engine bolted on. The first telephones had no dials, they were added later and later replaced with buttons, which made the phone more complex internally but much easier to use. The same with four stroke engines, far more complicated than a two stroke but far less fussy to maintain.

Heuristics are bug ridden by definition. If they didn't have bugs, then they'd be algorithms.