The uses of old computers

Yesterday I visited the research labs of Eastman Kodak in Rochester, N.Y., and was struck, as I often am on visits to academic or industrial labs, by how old most of the PCs used to run critical test equipment are. Most of the Kodak lab PCs looked to be at least five years old and many were running Windows 2000, systems most of us would consider fossils for our mundane chores of reading e-mail and writing memos.

Maybe there’s a lesson for those of us who always need the latest and greatest. One is that Windows systems can be kept going for a powerful long time if they are maintained in a pristine environment—only the software that is needed to do the job at hand is ever loaded on them. And second, “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” is a very good rule for mission-critical tasks. A few years ago I visited the Fusion Lab at MIT and was shocked to find a long row of Digital Equipment VAX 11-780s, systems that even then must have been 20 years old. I asked why they were still using these relics and was told 1) they worked fine, 2) they were running millions of dollars worth of custom software for fusion reactor control and data analysis, and 3) they intended to keep them running just as long as they could be maintained.

Something for the rest of us to think about.

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