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Respect Your Elders

Level 17

"Oh Geez," exclaimed the guy who sits 2 desks from me, "that thing is ancient! Why would they give him that?"

Taking the bait, I popped my head over the wall and asked "what is?"

He showed me a text message, sent to him from a buddyan engineer (EE, actually) who worked for an oil company. My co-worker’s iPhone 6 displayed an image of a laptop we could only describe as “vintage”:

pastedImage_0.jpg

(A Toshiba Tecra 510CDT, which was cutting edge…back in 1997.)

"Wow." I said. "Those were amazing. I worked on a ton of those. They were serious workhorsesyou could practically drop one from a 4 story building and it would still work. I wanted one like nobody's business, but I could never afford it."

"OK, back in the day I'm sure they were great," said my 20-something coworker dismissively. "But what the hell is he going to do with it NOW? Can it even run an OS anymore?"

I realized he was coming from a particular frame of reference that is common to all of us in I.T. Newer is better. Period. With few exceptions (COUGH-Windows M.E.-COUGH), the latest version of somethingbe it hardware or softwareis always a step up from what came before.

While true, it leads to a frame of mind that is patently un-true: a belief that what is old is also irrelevant. Especially for I.T. Professionals, it’s a dangerous line of thought that almost always leads to un-necessary mistakes and avoidable failures.

In fact, ask any I.T. pro who’s been at it for a decade, and you'll hear story after story:

  • When programmers used COBOL, back when dinosaurs roamed the earth, one of the fundamental techniques that were drilled into their heads was, "check your inputs." Thinking about the latest version of exploits, be they an SSLv3 thing like 'Poodle', or a SQL injection, or any of a plethora of web based security problems, the fundamental flaw is the server NOT checking its inputs, for sanity.
  • How about the OSI model? Yes, we all know its required knowledge for many certification exams (and at least one IT joke). But more importantly, it was (and still is) directly relevant to basic network troubleshooting.
  • Nobody needs to know CORBA database structure anymore, right? Except that a major monitoring tool was originally developed on CORBA and that foundation has stuck. Which is why, if you try to create a folder-inside-a-folder more than 3 times, the entire system corrupts. CORBA (one of the original object-oriented databases) could only handle 3 levels of object containership.
  • Powershell can be learned without understanding the Unix/Linux command line concepts. But, it’s sure EASIER to learn if you already know how to pipe ls into grep into awk into awk so that you get a list of just the files you want, sorted by date. That technique (among other Unix/Linux concepts) was one of the original goals of Powershell.
  • Older rev's of industrial motion-control systems used specific pin-outs on the serial port. The new USB-to-Serial cables don't mimic those pin-outs correctly, and trying to upload a program with the new cables will render the entire system useless.

And in fact, that's why my co-worker's buddy was handed one of those venerable Tecra laptops. It had a standard serial port and it was preloaded with the vendor's DOS-based ladder-logic programming utility. Nobody expected it to run Windows 10, but it fulfilled a role that modern hardware simply couldn't have done.

It's an interesting story, but you have to ask: aside from some interesting anecdotes and a few bizarre use-cases, does this have any relevance to our work day-today?

You bet.

We live in a world where servers, storage, and now the network is rushing toward a quantum singularity of virtualization.

And the “old-timers” in the mainframe team are laughing their butts off as they watch us run in circles, inventing new words to describe techniques they learned at the beginning of their career; making mistakes they solved decades ago; and (worst of all) dismissing everything they know as utterly irrelevant.

Think I’m exaggerating? SAN and NAS look suspiciously like DASD, just on faster hardware. Services like Azure and AWS, for all their glitz and automation, aren't as far from rented time on a mainframe as we'd like to imagine. And when my company replaces my laptop with a fancy "appliance" that connects to Citrix VDI session, it reminds me of nothing as much as the VAX terminals I supported back in the day.

My point isn't that I’m a techno-Ecclesiastes shouting "there is nothing new under the sun!" Or some I.T. hipster who was into the cloud before it was cool. My point is that it behooves us to remember that everything we do, and every technology we use, had its origins in something much older than 20 minutes ago.

If we take the time to understand that foundational technology we have the chance to avoid past mis-steps, leverage undocumented efficiencies built into the core of the tools, and build on ideas elegant enough to have withstood the test of time.


Got your own "vintage" story, or long-ago-learned tidbit that is still true today? Share it in the comments!

31 Comments
clubjuggle
Level 13

Great article, adatole‌. Just this morning I was chatting with a friend who also works in IT about Citrix and Winterms, and made the analogy that, at its core, a Winterm is basically a dumb terminal.

Jfrazier
Level 18

Funny thing is I still look for some of the older laptops for a reason.

It is that silly 9-pin RS-232 port.  I do a lot of radio programming via software and some of the commercial radios require a real rs-232 with the proper timing signals. 

In some cases they also require a slower processor (100MHz Pentium).  Thus I have an old IBM Thinkpad with DOS and Win95 and a 1.8GHz Compac nc5000 running Win 2k.  These handle pretty much all the radio programming I need.

The old vax machines (VMS, unix, Ultrix) were not the only ones to use a "dumb terminal - aka thin client".  The old mainframe terminals were coax connected in a ring...heavens help you if you unplugged it by accident.  In those days many of the terminals had their own cable back to the backplane or terminal controller for the machine.

After the madness inthe 90's when the key was to move to midrange servers because the mainframe was dying...a number of shops are looking at moving to or back to the mainframe.  Why ?  Big Iron...lots of horsepower, they've been doing virtualization for decades, overall experience. 

Great article adatole‌ !  Mainframes are fun...just don't miss the 90lb consoles.

cahunt
Level 17

The right tools always make a difference no matter how old or used they may seem. Some of the best work I've seen come from an old engineer reaching back to a tool that hasn't been seen in over 30 years to easily troubleshoot what seemed like an unfix-able issue. Nice insight adatole

mattoz
Level 10

"techno-Ecclesiastes" = awesome

mr.e
Level 14

This article took me back to my very first portable PC -- A Compaq Luggable, which was the top of the line back then.  Check out the specs...

  • Awesome 9 inch monochrome (green screen) monitor
  • A whopping 128Kb of RAM
  • A ginormous 20MB hard drive.
  • Two 5.25 inch 360Kb Floppy disk drives

compaqI.JPG

That thing was anything but luggable.   And, it did not had wheels, so I was a back breaker for sure.  And to think that just about any smartphone dwarfs those computers.  Ah, the good old days... 

Jfrazier
Level 18

very much like the Osborne CP/M machine back in 1982.

clubjuggle
Level 13

My dad's best friend is a CPA and he had one of those.

Bonus points if this looks familiar:

2-v100-36be6ccfb124f074a0ee6bcce00cb6c0-SuperCalc%202%20v1.00%20IBM%20PC%20-%20Edit.png

Jfrazier
Level 18

A spreadsheet from before spreadsheets were cool...that brings back nightmares..I mean memories.

mcam
Level 14

it is kind of sad that with all this new tech and with so much already done for modern developers through predefined look and feel, input type etc.

They still manage to ignore everything hard-learned in the past.

I would bet that its also down to the shift to languages that speed up deployment by pretending to do all the work for you.

Its easier to take the defaults, make a standard looking input screen in half a day and call it done so we can move to the next sprint.

As Leon said, not one validated input because validating input takes time to develop and that wasn't included in the story.

jkump
Level 15

I think I have posted this a few times but this is a great article and it bears out the truth.  I have mentored many younger technicians in my time and I always am reminded of the saying "If we do not learn from our history, we are doomed to repeat it".  After 3 decades in IT, I find it humorous that the same concepts are on a repetitive cycle.  All processing done in a central computer and just screens -- one could say that I was describing a modern VDI environment but then again it could be a DEC PDP/11 system.  Or how we segmented to distributed computing in the days of Novell 2.x and then Citrix was developed to overcome an issue with slow 56K leased data lines.  Now, the communication lines are faster, connectivity is ubiquitous and security is at the forefront.  But who remembers the days of calling (dialing) into work on a 300 baud modem and using social engineering.  Of course, then you have the development of Plug-n-Play or as it was affectionately known Plug-n-Pray.  For those of us who are old enough to know what port and IRQ meant and how to configure them, the ability to just have the system do it for you was shocking but now it is just standard.  Great post!

goodzhere
Level 14

Good article.  Flash from the past... lol

deverts
Level 14

"If history repeats itself, and the unexpected always happens, how incapable must Man be of learning from experience." - George Bernard Shaw

ecklerwr1
Level 19

This is why a good computer science background applies everywhere and stands to be bascially the same year after year.  Just like we use Pseudocode - Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia  to describe algorithms.  It's not the syntax or specific language but the fundamental high level ideas that everything are built with and upon.

ecklerwr1
Level 19

Visicalc.png

This is the original spreadsheet aka Visicalc.  One of the turning points between personal computers being a hobby or for real business.

deverts
Level 14

I'm having a hard time getting past 9.75% tax...OUCH!!

D

cahunt
Level 17

Must be in Seattle or another strong Lib Municipality.

jkump
Level 15

That's the rate in middle America for most of the small towns and small counties. 

adatole
Level 17

Can't tell if that's visicalc or supercalc.

clubjuggle
Level 13

Mine was Supercalc, ecklerwr1‌'s was Visicalc.

adatole
Level 17

I used to take one of those from my job at ExecuTrain to teach Lotus 1-2-3 at one of the local banks. It was only "portable" if you were the American Tourister gorilla.

jkump
Level 15

Isn't that why they were called "luggables" 

muwale
Level 12

which company laptop

mr.e
Level 14

My older brother sort of introduced me to computers.  Here's his first baby....

c64_old_original_box.jpg

By the way, I say "sort of" because he would not let anyone touch his Commodore 64, not even his girlfriend.  So, I had to resign myself to hover over his shoulders.

mr.e
Level 14

Here's a tribute to the very first Apple computer...

1280px-Apple_I_Computer.jpg

ecklerwr1
Level 19

Here's my first Apple Computer.  I got it first with 16k ram and it wasn't enough so I ordered the extra ram to bring it up to 48k at the time it was 2400$ used an RF converter to connect to color tv and I used a normal radio shack cassette tape player for storage (5.25 floppies weren't released yet!)

Apple2Plus.jpg

ecklerwr1
Level 19

Eventually got one of these and later a second.  They weren't cheap either.  I always wanted a 10 Meg Hard drive but never could swing it... they were like 1000$ by themselves.

apple_floppy_03.jpg

superfly99
Level 17

I use these same colours still for my telnet application

Nothing like good old monochrome.

superfly99
Level 17

Plug and Pray I remember those days. And also trying to find jumpers to use. Pesky little things always disappeared. Especially in schools. Which reminds me ot the students stealing the mouse balls.

df112
Level 13

Ah, the old draggable Compaq.  I later had a dedicated Sniffer on a Dolch.  That was a pretty serious machine, and I saved the company a ton of money troubleshooting all kinds of problems on our midrange, token-ring and early ethernet networks.

df112
Level 13

Wanted one of these so bad I could taste it, but couldn't afford it.  Spent hours standing at a counter at the local geek store in the 80's renting time on one though.  It was like $2/hour or something, and I couldn't get enough.

Jfrazier
Level 18

Ah yes, the what was old is new again but with the names changes to provide for new marketing to the unsuspecting.

Don't knock the old hardware.  I still have an old IBM Thinkpad (200Mhz Pentium) running windows 95.  Why do you ask ?
Some commercial type radio programming software requires access to a true DOS environment and the radio interface requires the timing you get from a true serial port (RS-232) which you don't get from todays usb-serial port converters.  (Motorola is a good example, good older radios but programming environment is specfic). 

I also have a somewhat newer compaq (mid 2000's) laptop running win 2000 for a number of Kenwood commercial radios.  Also for the newer software requirements and again a real RS-232 port.

So Win95 is not y2k compliant, nothing I do with it is date dependent.  It remains air gapped, it is slow and it still works.  Did I say it was slow ?
Win 2000 also remains air gapped.  I transfer any new software via cd-rom or SD card from a current machine.

Todays technology is great, but sometimes you need to support older hardware because it provides things todays hardware doesn't have anymore.

In many ways IBM did it all back in the 70's, 80's, 90's, 2000's as Leon mentioned above. 

Most everything today is the same concept just renamed for marketing with a bunch of new hype to make it seem all new....again. 

DASD farms = SAN, NAS,etc.

VM = they did VM back in the 90's maybe even earlier than that.

Rented computing time, that goes back to the original mainframes.

Hosted services...see above item

and the list goes on...

About the Author
In my sordid career, I have been an actor, bug exterminator and wild-animal remover (nothing crazy like pumas or wildebeasts. Just skunks and raccoons.), electrician, carpenter, stage-combat instructor, American Sign Language interpreter, and Sunday school teacher. Oh, and I work with computers. Since 1989 (when you got a free copy of Windows 286 on twelve 5¼” floppies when you bought a copy of Excel 1.0) I have worked as a classroom instructor, courseware designer, desktop support tech, server support engineer, and software distribution expert. Then about 14 years ago I got involved with systems monitoring. I've worked with a wide range of tools: Tivoli, Nagios, Patrol, ZenOss, OpenView, SiteScope, and of course SolarWinds. I've designed solutions for companies that were extremely modest (~10 systems) to those that were mind-bogglingly large (250,000 systems in 5,000 locations). During that time, I've had to chance to learn about monitoring all types of systems – routers, switches, load-balancers, and SAN fabric as well as windows, linux, and unix servers running on physical and virtual platforms.