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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.

    • Re:Technology (Score:5, Insightful)

      by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:42AM (#39950601)

      Actually, I've found that people are more likely to be the opposite. They see something new, and they say...well, the old way was better. Old cars, because they hate all these fancy engines that they can't just fix, old televisions because they can't stand those black bars, old light bulbs because those curly ones are too hard to understand.

      Too many people assume everything should be frozen at a point in time, because of well, some human factor that results in a resistance to any change or improvement.

      Because it might not be perfect, but the old ways, they WERE better.

      Don't get me started on the people who think that they're hearing about more murders and killings today, so it must be more than it was back when they were young! Even if you produce statistics showing the opposite, or if you point out the numerous children who survive because of modern medicine, or anything else that shows it's not all bad.

      • Re:Technology (Score:4, Insightful)

        by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:44AM (#39950881)
        I think that people may say that they miss the old days, but based on people's fickleness when it comes to how they communicate (letter, phone, e-mail, myspace, facebook, etc), how they want new TVs even though tubes are arguably superior in both contrast and refresh rate (not to mention multiresolution capable), and that they sell millions upon millions of cars annually, they don't actually believe that the old days were better.

        The old days were simpler, not better. When one has less choices it's often easier to choose. When old technologies are cobbled on to, like all of the additions to the otherwise-ancient Otto-cycle internal combustion engine, those additions are what make some old things more complicated and arguably worse in at least the maintenance aspect. If we see actual technological revolution though, not only is the base technology replaced, but all of the other cobbled-on parts are too.
        • 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.

          • Re:Technology (Score:5, Informative)

            by dkleinsc ( 563838 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @09:22AM (#39953113) Homepage

            What you're describing is economic specialization. On the upside, that means that people who do plumbing or electrical or whatever are really good at it. On the downside, your everyday guy doesn't do plumbing or electrical, even on their own home. In theory, that makes things more efficient, because rather than a do-it-yourselfer completely botching the job, the specialist does the job right much faster than the do-it-yourselfer.

            This process is not really that new: there was a time when pretty much everybody was doing the same things: hunting, gathering, banging rocks together to make spearpoints, fighting for survival, raising children, etc. Then you started getting differentiation based on gender (as far as current archaeology can tell) with men more involved in hunting and banging rocks together and women more involved in gathering, processing food, and raising children. Then you started getting divisions into professions, with some people specializing in warfare, food production, toolmaking, religion, and so on.

            So we have specialized. And it's brought us productivity far beyond anything the world has ever known. But you're right that it means that we're more reliant than ever before on the skills of other people.

            • by Kjella ( 173770 )

              Well, that's half of it but you missed the other half which is that it's not just human specialization, we're replacing them with machines and computers. We still need skilled, specialized people but it's increasingly harder to find work for the rest and it's not trivial to make them into skills and specialized workers. If I was to make a software application and I got 100 people randomly picked from the street to work with, I'd probably select considerably fewer because the rest would add zero or negative

              • Unemployment is caused by government interference with the market. If you're willing to work for 5 cents an hour, finding a job is easy, but the government has made it illegal.
            • The archeological record indicates that making stone spear points (knapping) was a specialized skill. It's even more specialized today.

          • by lee1 ( 219161 )
            How cool is it that lumberjacks read Slashdot?
          • the car needs an auto mechanic because everything is too complicated to do yourself.

            No it's not.

        • 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.

      • old televisions because they can't stand those black bars

        I'd have to agree with the old timers, we are being scammed with those new sets. They sell by the hypotenuse, but the honest measurement would be the area (width x height). Wide? More like short. It's a way to sell smaller screens with more "inches". If I found a new 4:3 plasma screen, you bet I'd get it!

      • by mcgrew ( 92797 ) *

        Actually, I've found that people are more likely to be the opposite. They see something new, and they say...well, the old way was better

        In many cases the old ways are better, but in my experience most new things are better. For instance, phones. Damn but my phone is a lot more useful than the one I had in 1970. Microwave ovens, the only things I use the stove for is deep frying, eggs, hamburgers, and pizza. Almost everything else I just use the microwave; I've even figured out how to make good chicken breas

    • 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.
    • Re:Technology (Score:5, Insightful)

      by qu33ksilver ( 2567983 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:49AM (#39950631)
      Absolutely, never forget your roots. We would be fools to discard our past because that's what led us to where we are now.
    • Re:Technology (Score:4, Insightful)

      by ThePeices ( 635180 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:54AM (#39950659)

      "I've never understood why people think that just because something is newer makes it better"

      Thats because 9 times out of ten, newer DOES equal better.

      • Re:Technology (Score:5, Insightful)

        by houstonbofh ( 602064 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:20AM (#39950795)
        KDE4, Gnome3, Windows8, Vista... Sometimes change is just change, not improvement.
        • by TWX ( 665546 )
          To take it away from computers, in 1998 a very strong Chrysler Corporation with a popular line of products merged with a German company to form DaimlerChrysler, and over the next decade the German side of the company almost completely ruined the American side's products. The Caliber replaced the Neon and was less successful. The Avenger replaced the Stratus and was less successful, as was the revised Sebring. The new Dakota replaced the old Dakota and was less successful. The Durango's redesign was an o
      • I would put it more at around 5 times out of 10. Sometimes the new thing has some portion that is clearly better but which is balanced out by another portion that is worse. Ie, most movie sequels which may have good production values and better effects but which have worse plots and lack of originality. Or new laptop that smaller and lighter but which has fewer ports and the user can not replace any broken components without shipping back to manufacturer.

    • Re:Technology (Score:4, Insightful)

      by tlhIngan ( 30335 ) <slashdot@@@worf...net> on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:19AM (#39950787)

      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.

      SOmetimes you have to. I mean, I have a bunch of stuff I love to use, like my Palm T|X. Problem is, accessories are REALLY hard to find. I had to replace the LCD, and it cost a few bucks. I'm thinking of picking up a few spares to keep it alive, but then you have to wonder if just switching completely is better.

      It's just like PATA hard drives. I have lots of stuff that use it, but just try finding PATA hard drives. They're *expensive* - like $100/500GB expensive. ($100 can buy 2TB on sale, if SATA).

      The old gear may work, but keeping it working can cost a lot more than migrating to newer technology.Even just to keep functionality the same.

    • 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.

      • 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 toygeek ( 473120 )

        Indeed, my best pan is a 9" cast iron skillet that is about 150 years old, and that's no exaggeration. Its not as non stick as teflon is, but its pretty damned good. Came over on a wagon train.

        I have a client who runs a sign making business. Their CNC machine is run off an old PC or XT with a few hundred 5.25" floppies for fonts etc. Works fine, they still use it every day.

        Newer != better.

    • There's also the concern of the post-ROHS lead-free solder in newer gear -- the old stuff doesn't grow tin whiskers, and can be expected to last much longer than the stuff that does, given equal treatment. That old Vax might still be pumping transactions out for a very long time; replace it with something new, and the same might not be said.

      • Re:Technology (Score:5, Insightful)

        by Joce640k ( 829181 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @03:38AM (#39951359) Homepage

        That old Vax might still be pumping transactions out for a very long time; replace it with something new, and the same might not be said.

        By the time the new thing breaks you'll be able to run a VAX emulator on something that costs $100 (and it will run faster on a tiny fraction of the power and fit on a shelf...)

    • Re:Technology (Score:5, Insightful)

      by BenJCarter ( 902199 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @02:11AM (#39951001)
      The flatfile, like the flatworm [wikipedia.org], will likely survive eons of evolution...

      XML FTW!
      • XML in SQL - 100% more win!

      • Re:Technology (Score:4, Insightful)

        by SuricouRaven ( 1897204 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @05:07AM (#39951737)
        I get annoyed when people just jump straight to making a database for everything. Sometimes flat files are just a better option, so long as you don't need to run any searches.
        • Re:Technology (Score:5, Insightful)

          by YttriumOxide ( 837412 ) <yttriumox@@@gmail...com> on Thursday May 10, 2012 @05:43AM (#39951829) Homepage Journal

          I get annoyed when people just jump straight to making a database for everything. Sometimes flat files are just a better option, so long as you don't need to run any searches.

          Absolutely agreed. My day job is writing software and if I'm storing data that I know will never exceed a few MB at absolute most, has no requirements for search, and is a fairly simple structure; I FAR prefer to use CSV to any kind of database.

          The best example is a single application translation table for around 25 languages. 100 strings, 25 languages - it may in theory grow up to 50 languages or so eventually and if the app gets much bigger, up to 200 strings. 200*50 = 10000 strings. At an average of around 15 bytes per string, that's ~150KB of data.

          As a UTF-8 CSV text file, I can hand edit it in a run of the mill text editor; loading it in the application takes milliseconds of application startup time (at which point the whole thing sits in memory while the application runs, so it doesn't re-read it again); parsing it is trivial; and any errors introduced somehow aren't going to kill the whole file (perhaps just make one string wrong; or at worst corrupt one language (a single line of the file)). I can't count count the number of times people have told me to convert this to a SQLite database "because it's better"... very sad.

    • Exactly, I put a couple of old ISA slotted PCs that once upon a time were my gaming PCs back into service out of my shed for a customer by slapping DOS 3 on them, why? Because he had an $85,000 CNC lathe by this company that had been out of business for ages and the only controller for it was this old ISA board that ran on DOS 3. And I have to say the software was actually pretty good, it was easy to use either prebuilt designs or mix and match to come up with new columns, and of course since this machine

      • Re:Technology (Score:5, Informative)

        by mwvdlee ( 775178 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @04:53AM (#39951683) Homepage

        You don't have to rely on old computers for ISA support. There are plenty of well-known designing and producing new motherboards with ISA slots for pretty much the same price as an average motherboard, with the benefit of also supporting modern hardware.

        In a way it's sad the ISA standard is gone; it was very easy for an electronic geek to make ISA cards as the protocol didn't require complicated hardware.
        I don't think modern computers have any interface left that can be used without requiring a chip to handle the protocol.

    • Some of this may be everyone trained since birth to be a consumer. Constant advertisements of "new and improved". Encouragement to throw away old things.

      Another reason possibly is that kids are a huge market now. Kids like toys, and they like new toys, things they haven't played with before. A 5 year old toy is useless as it has lost its novelty. It takes a long time for kids to outgrow this attitude, and sometimes they don't.

      Although in some of the cases listed it would be cheaper and more efficient a

    • by mindriot ( 96208 )

      If it works, don't replace it.

      My favorite example: The equipment in the Solar Telescope office [picturebubbles.com] at Mount Wilson observatory. You can look at it yourself during the guided tours they offer on weekends. Great fun.
      Unfortunately I'm not sure about the specific models used, maybe someone else can enlighten us here?

  • by TWX ( 665546 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:38AM (#39950575)
    ...I don't want it replaced before it's no longer doing its job effectively. The Navy system, for example, was finally replaced when the actual PDP11 hardware was no longer viable, and given the expense of the control software to develop, it probably was more cost effective to simply emulate a PDP11 to keep the existing code viable.

    Reinventing the wheel only because a technology has been around for a long time is not cost effective, and replacing technology because viable machines are simply old is also not cost effective. This same logic makes me dislike programs like Cash for Clunkers, as the cost to develop and build a car, plus deliver, is high enough that taking cars off the road that are still viable, almost without regard to fuel economy, is not cost effective. Use it until repairing it is financially impractical, especially considering the expense of buying another new one.
    • 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."

      • by Bert64 ( 520050 ) <bert&slashdot,firenzee,com> on Thursday May 10, 2012 @02:24AM (#39951061) Homepage

        Generic uses like simple document creation aren't actually any quicker than they were years ago... Sure the hardware is quicker, but the software is considerably heavier resulting in a user experience that while prettier, is around the same speed as it always has been.

        For most uses, the old software was actually perfectly adequate, and old lightweight software running on modern hardware would be the ideal scenario.

        • The old saying is: "What Intel giveth, Microsoft taketh away."

          As long as all the functionality you want is there, replacing the thing is a pure waste of money: there's a cost but no gain.
          Of course, there's stuff like trying to run a new browser on a phone just two years old, but new software on old metal is the worst you can get.

      • by hairyfeet ( 841228 ) <bassbeast1968@gm ... minus herbivore> on Thursday May 10, 2012 @02:51AM (#39951167) Journal

        Another thing people forget to look at with older systems is heat and the increased costs in AC for running an old power hog. I had a company that was "getting by" on those piggy Prescott P4 and big old CRTs so I told the boss "Just buy two machines and see if you see a difference and then we can see about changing out the office" and I swapped out those two piggies for a couple of 19 inch LCDs with an E350 mini unit mounted behind it.

        Well it wasn't two weeks later he was coming in to work out a plan to replace every unit just because he saw how much cooler it was in those two rooms than in the other offices and how much quieter it was. Even after bumping up those that said they needed more power to quads he told me a few months later he saw both his need for cooling and his electric bill both go down just by getting rid of the piggies.

        So sometimes it can really help to get rid of older tech if that older tech is power sucking, I know that getting rid of those Pentium Ds and CRT hand me downs the boys were playing on for more modern multicores with flat panels certainly dropped our cooling bills. You just don't realize how power hogging that gear is until you replace it.

    • by labnet ( 457441 )

      ...I don't want it replaced before it's no longer doing its job effectively

      Except you PDP11 system might burn through $10k of electricity per annum when an modern PC might use $200/annum
      Similarly, a euro diesel uses half the fuel of a typical amercan clunker for the same power and torque....

    • For many years as IBM introduced newer and faster computers the instruction sets of the older machines were emulated by the newer ones so that customers code would not be obsoleted. Eventually you might have had several layers of emulation going on.

      DEC's vax emulated the PDP-11 instruction set and would run RSX-11 (their most poplular PDP-11 OS) under the VAX OS as a sub task so that customers could migrate from the PDP-11 to the VAX. And DEC's Alpha machines would emulate VAX, PDP-11, and 386 instruction

  • 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.

    • by TWX ( 665546 )
      I I'm sure there's solder in the computer of the B-52. There might be no integrated-circuit memory, but components still need to be connected somehow.

      My guess as to why the AP-101 is still in use is that with it being expensive to certify new equipment in flight, when the device performs as needed, replacing it is not practical or strictly necessary. On the other hand, if the Air Force determined that it really, really did need a new computer in the B-52, it would happen, despite obstacles to the proce
    • by mirix ( 1649853 )

      I was under the impression that the only thing left original on the B-52s is the sheetmetal.

      I imagine they've probably upgraded the avionics a few times by now.

  • Hardly obsolete. (Score:5, Informative)

    by Lord Kano ( 13027 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:44AM (#39950609) Homepage Journal

    I can speak from first hand knowledge that many Fortune 500 companies are using technology that most people think of as obsolete. If you paid $50k for a software package that was written for VAX OpenVMS and the publisher went out of business 15 years ago, what would you do? You'd do the same thing these guys do. Work on getting a replacement, and keep that replacement in the wings until you can no longer run the existing (perfectly working) package.

    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?

    Today, companies are producing good and providing services that touch all of our lives using 30+ year old technology.


    • 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 Mashhaster ( 1396287 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:48AM (#39950625)

    It just fades away into obscure applications that most people never know anything about. I can't tell you how many times I've heard people say tape is dead, or the desktop is dead, and yet people still use NDMP to back up data from company desktops over fibre channel to LTO tape drives as recently as right now, and still will tomorrow and the day after that.

  • by Animats ( 122034 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @12:55AM (#39950667) Homepage

    Actually, the IBM 402 mentioned was acquired by the Computer Museum, and is on exhibit there.

  • Flat Files FTW! (Score:5, Insightful)

    by wrook ( 134116 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:11AM (#39950739) Homepage

    Developers who think that *everything* needs to be in a database scare the crap out of me. Sometimes flat files are a really good idea. Sometimes putting something in a human readable form that can be viewed and edited with a normal text editor is a really good idea. There are many, many things where I don't need to search vast amounts of data, where I don't need atomic commits, where I don't need rollback, etc, etc. For those things I use a flat file.

    Admitedly, I know the difference between regular, context free and context sensitive grammars and I know how to write a parser. Unfortunately, this isn't always common knowledge in a software team :-P

    • Re:Flat Files FTW! (Score:5, Informative)

      by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:22AM (#39950813) Journal

      It's true that flat files may be "good enough" for a particular use, but it's not very flexible for unanticipated future uses.

      Basically if you base your app on a flat file, you are gambling that you won't need many of the features databases provide out of the box. Knowing how requirements changes, it's often the wrong bet.

      Software design is a lot like picking investments: you have to estimate future changes and the magnitude of their impact. Experience in both software design and the domain (industry) help in this regard.

      • by Lehk228 ( 705449 )
        your application shoudln't be too dependant on what format it's data is stored in anyways, unless it's only function is toprocess data in format X,Y,and Z
      • Re:Flat Files FTW! (Score:5, Insightful)

        by wvmarle ( 1070040 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @02:21AM (#39951045)

        I would write a data reader/writer module for the program.

        This would handle the data storage, and if later requirements change it's a relatively small part of the program that changes. The rest of the program doesn't have to care how it's stored externally: it just cares about having function calls available to do a read, write, maybe search. This makes it also relatively easy to expand.

        And when in future there is a need for say more sophisticated search options, you can rewrite that one module so it starts to interact with a MySQL or Postgres database or so. Even the data format conversion becomes a breeze that way as all you do is read from the old system and write to the new system.

        Further in the future maybe your external db goes out of business, and again it's a relatively easy change to a new db.

        • Re:Flat Files FTW! (Score:5, Insightful)

          by KlaymenDK ( 713149 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @03:49AM (#39951413) Journal

          I would write a data reader/writer module for the program.

          Quoted in lieu of an upvote. This is the #1 step in optimising file system access -- store it in a flat file first, with a proper wrapper, and then you MAY update to a higher-end system later on IF it's needed. Don't underestimate the bandwidth and accessibility (as in: hacking data for testing, etc.) of the flat file! :-)

    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      If XML isn't fixing your problems, you must not be using enough of it...

    • by dbIII ( 701233 )

      Developers who think that *everything* needs to be in a database scare the crap out of me.

      That's actually why there was some old plotting software from 1995 on a SparcStation20 with SunOS 5 in my office. The newer software had a full rewrite to integrate a database into a very simple plotting and queueing system and the rewrite never finished implementing all of the features of the old system (thus text output on diagrams looked like crap). The old software is still running unchanged on a newer and vastly

    • Well when it comes to US taxes I'd wager it falls in the "vast amounts of data". However I can imagine it takes really long to change the storage methods, if only because you have to be really sure it Just Works and the old system does just that.

      That said a lot of my small business info I store in spreadsheets. A perfect in-between: human readable, and with the AutoFilter function easily searchable by column. And with a couple hundred records a year no need for anything more fancy.

  • by fragMasterFlash ( 989911 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:15AM (#39950757)
    The real trick is trying to distinguish yourself as enough of a "giant" so that future generations may acknowledge the footing with which you provide them.
  • 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.

  • IE6 (Score:5, Funny)

    by Anonymous Coward on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:17AM (#39950777)

    I thought this was going to be about IE6

  • I had a client who was (still is) an auctioneer. Not a real techy type, didnt need to be. They had a DOS based software that served them well. For over 7000 regular customers and years of auctions. No, not online, just something to keep track of items, bids, and clients. Its all they needed. It fit perfectly into their business, all the not techy people used it..past win 3.1, past win95, 98, even up to XP when their hardware started to fail and then they couldnt find the hardware to support the software any
  • by Grayhand ( 2610049 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @01:24AM (#39950825)
    I still see offices especially things like vets and some stores even that are using old DOS based record keeping systems. They weren't sure how to transfer all the information so they keep using systems that are several decades old. I haven't worked around it in years but up into the late 90s motion picture effects companies still used old DOS based machines to run motion control systems. The hardware and software they used at the time couldn't be adapted to Windows.
    • The fundamental problem is that, for a lot of these systems, newer does not mean better.

      That DOS record keeping system, is it good enough ? Would a costly rewrite and/or data migration result in useful improvements to justify the expense ?

      For many businesses, it only becomes a problem when the old hardware breaks down, and the new hardware can't run the obsolete software. In practice, people would sooner run their archaic system via DosBox than have it redeveloped.

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

    Is there anyone else who read this headline and thought it that it referred to some old dude [userfriendly.org]?

  • The Gardena T 1030 [gardena.com] automated watering system uses a modern form of a punch card to program its schedule. It is rather clever in that the hard plastic "card" has small plastic sliders which cover the appropriate holes for the desired settings (e.g. watering at 6am, every second day, for 5 minutes). When put into the small machine, it's read optically (AFAIK).

    http://www.gardena.com/int/water-management/water-controls/water-timer-t-1030-card/ [gardena.com]
  • 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.
  • This is the key point... Technology hardly ever becomes useless. It will always do what it was designed to do (taking it still works as intended).

    It will eventually become outdated, replaced with more effective technologies (cost or function wise) or fail to fulfill newer need.

    But this, we should never forget. Technology will always do what it was designed do to.

  • 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...

  • 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."

  • 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. http://tinyurl.com/ghanahoax [tinyurl.com]

    • CRTs can last much longer then 20 years. Still plenty of working 1970s TVs out there that have received ZERO service and repairs. 1960s TVs are a bit flaky, but a full recap usually does the trick with those. Mind you, those capacitors that are marginal/failed are over 50 years old, not 5 years old.
  • by Suzuran ( 163234 ) on Thursday May 10, 2012 @08:53AM (#39952727)

    Still runs as it did the day it was shipped.

    Remember children, if it's not 36 bits, you're not playing with a full DEC!

  • by lee1 ( 219161 ) <lee@@@lee-phillips...org> on Thursday May 10, 2012 @10:36AM (#39954071) Homepage
    The article begins with an example of what the author seems to think is truly outmoded technology, only useful for teaching preschoolers. But people who know how to use the abacus can multiply a couple of four-digit numbers together, arriving at the result before an experienced electronic calculator user has finished entering the first number into the machine. I've seen shopkeepers in New York's Chinatown using abacuses in place of cash registers, and I'm sure their use is still widespread in China, at least. Electronic calculators begin to have an edge when you need to extract square roots of numbers more than a few digits long. There is a pattern here: old technology often requires some training to use it effectively, but if you put in the work to develop the skill, it works better in some situations.

Remember to say hello to your bank teller.