Computing Fossils: Old Tech Holds on for Dear Life
The Ghost of a PDP-11
The PDP-11 is another classic machine from DEC, originating in the 1970s and being sold into the early '90s. One of the most common uses for the computer was for real-time process control and factory automation; and one of the longest-lived examples of such use was in a particularly quirky application within the U.S. Navy.
In the 1970s, the Navy and American Airlines built a machine called the Multi-station Spatial Disorientation Device (MSDD). It was something like a souped-up version of the Scrambler, that ride you know and love from state fairs, where you're rotated in nesting cycles within cycles, creating either great joy or intense nausea, depending on how delicate your constitution is. The MSDD had the added feature of keeping its riders in the dark; the point was to simulate the sense of disorientation you'd feel in a plane at night or in a cloudbank, and demonstrate that in such situations your brain's approximation of what was happening around you bore little or no resemblance to actual physical reality.
The MSDD wasn't operated by a carnie, but rather by a skilled technician and a PDP-11 -- at least up until 2007, when the Navy finally admitted that it was getting too expensive and difficult to keep that venerable computer in action. Migration Specialties, a company specializing in computer migration, as you might guess from its name, helped the Navy move to a more modern machine -- but one that was designed to simulate a PDP-11 down to the last detail. All that FORTRAN code is still running on a PDP emulation card, which in turn is helping emulate a fighter jet spinning out of control in a dark night.
The Flat File Database That Wouldn't Die
If you think getting things to change in the military's infrastructure is bad, try the true black hole of U.S. government IT: the IRS.
For decades, all of the IRS's tax records were held in something called Individual Master File, an enormous flat file containing millions upon millions of records, stored on big spinning wheels of magnetic tape and accessed via COBOL code. This file was the cutting edge of tech sophistication in the 1960s when it was first implemented, but fifty years later it had grown a little rough around the edges, yes?
Ha, we kid about the 50 years thing: it was outdated by the '80s, by which time most everybody else had migrated to relational databases. Still, Master File managed to defeat all the billions of dollars and replacement projects the government could throw at it, trudging happily along and restricting the IRS from accessing individual files more often than once a week. It was only this year that Master File was replaced by Customer Account Data Engine (CADE), a more conventional database system run on IBM hardware -- CADE 2, actually, since the original CADE was a failed project that was killed after years of development. And even that switchover was only for data for individuals; taxes for businesses and retirement plans are still kept on the old system for now.
Big Blue Predicts Blue Skies
Sometimes longtime government use of technology isn't the result of chaos and incompetence, but simple thriftiness. When it comes to weather predictions, satellites and doppler radar get all the press, but the National Weather Service still relies on good old-fashioned balloons -- and much of the data sent from those balloons is still processed by good old-fashioned IBM PC/XT machines, dating from the 1980s. It did turn out that 640 KB wasn't enough for everybody, but it seems that it's still good for many purposes.
Wait, What Did 'XP' Stand for Again?
If you want to find an archaic outdated operating system, maybe you need look no further than your desktop: after all, it's possible your PC is one of the 40.7 percent that still runs Windows XP. This is an operating system that was released in October of 2001 -- ten and a half years ago, as of this writing. To give you a sense of how long that span of time is (and to make you feel really old), ten and a half years before Windows XP was released was April 1991, when Windows 3.0 was Microsoft's reigning operating system. Windows NT wouldn't be released for another two years. XP's been with us for an eternity, in computer terms.
It may not be quite fair to call Windows XP a "decade-old operating system" -- it was after all the top of the line until Windows Vista was released, though even that was five years ago. Still, with such an impressively large installed base, it's a good bet that an article like this one written five or ten years from now will include "ancient x86 box running Windows XP" in its rogues gallery.
(Also see "The First 200 Years of Computing.").
Also by Josh Fruhlinger: Where did I come from? The origin(s) of my MacBook Pro; Six crucial tech companies you've never heard of; Ahead of their time: Nine technologies that came early; Curious histories of generic domain names.