Computers That Can’t Fail

legofthesixtiesVia PCWorld:

When you see reports about the small, remote-controlled drones that the military uses to gather intelligence and target enemies in Pakistan and Afghanistan, it’s easy to assume that all our weaponry is equally modern. Some significant weapons systems that our military depends on today, though, run on technology that dates back, in some instances, to the Vietnam War era.

The U.S. Navy’s ship-based radar systems and Britain’s Atomic Weapons Establishment, which maintains that country’s nuclear warheads, use PDP minicomputers manufactured in the 1970s by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Another user of the PDP is Airbus, the French jetliner manufacturer.

The PDP was among the second wave of mainframes called minicomputers because they were only the size of a couple of refrigerators instead of big enough to fill a room.

The F-15 and F-18 fighters, the Hawk missile systems, parts of the U.S. Navy submarine fleet, and Navy fighter test systems on aircraft carriers use DEC’s VAX minicomputers from the 1980s for various purposes, according to Lynda Jones of The Logical Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon, which helps keep these antiquated systems functioning.

The biggest problem with maintaining such ancient computer systems is that the original technicians who knew how to configure and maintain them have long since retired or passed away, so no one is left with the knowledge required to fix them if they break.

Even if someone does know how to fix them, finding replacement parts can be tricky. Stanley Quayle, a computer emulation consultant, has seen contractors desperate to find the parts they need. “I have a prospective customer supporting a U.S. missile defense system that is buying parts on eBay,” says Quayle. “Any parts they do find are as old or older than their system,” meaning they’re sometimes no more reliable than the pieces they replace.

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  • Anarchy Pony

    If you ever have to stay in cottage grove, the Village Green is lovely.

    • BuzzCoastin

      How do they grow bananas there?
      Can I get my VAX 780 fixed at the same time?

      • Anarchy Pony

        I don’t think you can grow bananas in Oregon. But I usually stay at the village green if I am on my way north to Seattle around Thanksgiving and Christmas. If I can afford to make the trip that year.

        • BuzzCoastin

          that’s what I thought
          but the attached picture to my first post
          is from their web site
          I think it might be possible if the ground doesn’t freeze
          or freeze too deeply

        • Bluebird_of_Fastidiousness

          You would be amazed what one can do with raised beds, ponds, and boulders to effect the micro climate. I’m gonna give peaches in Wisconsin a try this year. There’s a guy (Sepp Holzer) in the mountains of Austria growing cherries. Takes all kinds.

  • BuzzCoastin

    If you have spent anytime hanging around the US military
    you already know this
    Feynman noted this during the Challenger investigation in 1987
    that NASA was using 15 year old computer systems on the Space Shuttle

    “There is not enough room in the memory of the main line computers for all the programs of ascent, descent, and payload programs inflight, so the memory is loaded about four time from tapes, by the astronauts… no change has been made to the hardware since the system began about fifteen years ago.”

  • InfvoCuernos

    I can vouch for this. I worked on Naval Data Systems back in the 90’s, and that shit was 1960’s tech at best. Progress is absolutely better in this case. As far as technical sustainability goes, which would you rather have; a unit with 30+ circuit cards in a cage that had wiring that looked like someone dumped a pot of spaghetti noodles on it, or a chip that fit in the palm of your hand that has 100X the computing capacity? I can tell you which one is cheaper too. The military was dysfunctional about progress. They’d still be throwing cannonballs at eachother’s wooden ships if you left it up to those Luddites.

    • Anarchy Pony

      To be perfectly honest, I’d probably feel better if they were still using wooden ships and cannonballs.

      • InfvoCuernos

        you would unless you were one of those poor unfortunates that had been pressed into naval service-basically a sea slave- and you had to worry about losing an eye or limb to all the splinters those cannonballs make. Its only romantic if you were an officer. Most of it was every bit as rotten and bloody as war today.

        • Anarchy Pony

          Yeah, but at least they couldn’t shoot cruise missiles at land targets.

  • kowalityjesus

    that picture is hilarious

    • Threedinium

      You wouldn’t believe some of the stuff that comes up when you type in ‘PDP mainframe’ into google image search. Or maybe you would.

      • alizardx

        resisting the temptation to search on PDP and fetish

  • Brian McGloin

    I worked in Air Force public affairs (well, I’m inactive now but my enlistment isn’t up for a few more months).

    I can tell you, this “Internet” thing is slowly catching on and they rely heavily on store-bought Windows instead of a form of Linux or something.

    And to add a little more fun, they’re wonderful at wasting tremendous amounts of money on hare-brained schemes and technology improvements no one understands and that don’t really work anyway.

    It’s all run for the benefit of corporations.

  • alizardx

    I’ve heard that some mil tech still runs on vacuum tubes.

    • InfvoCuernos

      The Soviet Union was big on using vacuum tubes on everything instead of transistors because they were impervious to EMP and potentially operate after a nuclear exchange. The downside being that they are not very impact or shock resistant so they might survive the EMP, but they’ll probably shit out from the blast. Plus they are huge compared to even 1960’s transistors and they heat up.

  • Calypso_1

    There are also banking institutions running VAX mainframes w/ reel tapes for document storage. I still see major medical systems being run on DOS.

    • Jin The Ninja

      same for archives/libraries.


    A big reason to use primitive stuff is reliability. The more complex a system, the more things that can go wrong. The computer on the latest Mars rover is only 200 Mhz, but can withstand a ton of radiation.
    It has a small instruction set, so it takes less time to re-program it or send new commands. The bandwidth to Mars probably isn’t very good. The reasons for a two-megapixel camera on the rover are similar.

    In my own experience, when I went to computer school in the era of MS-DOS and the command-line interface, programming in BASIC was easy. As soon as the Windows or Mac GUI was added, the program complexity was increased exponentially, the result being I failed miserably and gave up. I am not a programmer, it turns out. I can deal with hardware, though.

  • Jin The Ninja

    it’s obvious-

    a cylon logic bomb cannot penetrate un-networked systems. it is in the best interest of the sons/daughters of kobol to maintain reliable, dependent computers that cannot be infiltrated by the human models or their toaster counterparts.