It is currently Sat Nov 18, 2017 7:31 pm

All times are UTC - 5 hours [ DST ]




Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 31 posts ]  Go to page 1, 2, 3  Next
Author Message
 Post subject: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:43 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Sat Jul 02, 2005 7:16 am
Posts: 1377
I recently talked with a manager who handles technical support for computers and software on a large fleet of railroad equipment that traces back to a half dozen manufacturers and thirty years of locomotive and car building. I inquired about the different software in use on their system, primarily from a standpoint of trying to determine what museums are likely to face when and if any of it is acquired for preservation.

He advised they presently have 38 different titles of software in use for the maintenance and programming of signal, communication, locomotive control, car management, air conditioning, event recorder, HEP operating and protective devices, and other functions on the railroad. Of those software packages, about half of them are dependent on Windows XP and have not been subsequently rewritten by the equipment manufactures for Vista, Windows 7, or Windows 8. He said they still have to retain in inventory several laptop computers with DOS operating systems for certain older equipment, "older" being the mid-1980s.

I am just posting this here for your general information and consideration in planning for the future. There have been several discussions lately that mentioned running equipment that is being retired and was built or last upgraded in the 1980s. Operating museums and tourist railroads might want to give some thought to what electronics technology they will need to service and maintain that equipment in the future.

PC

_________________
Advice from the multitude costs nothing and is often worth just that. (EMD-1945)


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Fri Feb 14, 2014 11:52 pm 
User avatar

Joined: Fri Oct 24, 2008 9:05 pm
Posts: 663
Location: MA
That is what an emulator is for.


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 12:08 am 
User avatar

Joined: Sat Jul 02, 2005 7:16 am
Posts: 1377
Having a DOS emulator (or Virtual PC and XP mode) unfortunately does nothing for you if somebody has not planned ahead and archived each manufacturers proprietary software package. There are already several locomotive control system builders that have exited the market or discontinued their product lines, their software and documentation are now quite rare. But replacement cards for discontinued systems are equally rare, making repairs difficult, and possibly requiring system replacement in the event of a failure.

PC

_________________
Advice from the multitude costs nothing and is often worth just that. (EMD-1945)


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 4:29 am 

Joined: Thu Nov 22, 2007 5:46 am
Posts: 2447
Location: S.F. Bay Area
Yes. It also matters if there is hardware involved. If you've got a proprietary cable interface to an onboard computer, and it uses an ISA card or PCMCIA, then yeah, you can run the software inside DOSBox on a Mac, but you can't very well plug in the card, eh?

Same issue if the hardware needs to talk to an RS-232 serial port. Those are hard to come by on a modern PC, so now you are buying a USB-RS232 adapter, which actually works on a totally different interface and will require software to make the bridge. Especially if the interface uses RS232 signal pins in nonstandard ways. A favorite of mine was to use various auxiliary RS232 handshake signals as an ersatz parallel port.

Since a lot of the role of computers is to squeeze peak performance out of the machine, or perform onboard diagnostics, I have a feeling a lot of museums will be bypassing that stuff rather than try to support it.


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 9:23 am 
User avatar

Joined: Sat Jul 02, 2005 7:16 am
Posts: 1377
In the case of locomotives, I suspect that a lot of the 1980s and later equipment, if any of it ends up in museums, will be static display lawn ornaments. Imagine getting a locomotive where the main processor, power supply, and I/O cards are no longer available, nor are the programs to manage and upload operating software to the system. At the first component failure, or corruption of the operating system, or problem with the operator interface devices, you are out of service. But who knows, perhaps somewhere, some one of the national organizations is planning ahead and at least archiving the software in a library.

PC

_________________
Advice from the multitude costs nothing and is often worth just that. (EMD-1945)


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 10:08 am 

Joined: Thu May 24, 2012 1:37 pm
Posts: 895
Computer hobbyists already represent a 'tappable' resource for much of this -- at least on the scale that is required for relatively small implementations, or for preserved equipment. It may take some time to duplicate the code for, say, an AD50, to run on a modern processor or VM, and then to build the interfaces necessary to match the cabling, if not the actual connectors.

Running a coherent orchestration of VMs of different 'platforms' in the cloud is one of the things Microsoft has been touting very recently in its attempts to get enterprise IT to move to their new cloud-centric approach. The problem comes in if you have to edit compiled code, or work with source that has been decommented or even obfuscated. But there are tools to handle these sorts of problems too.

This problem is probably not as severe in the railroad world -- severe as it is! -- as in medical and healthcare. I suspect much of the work done in that field with respect to continuing support for legacy systems will apply to railroad applications.

The other question that has been raised is potentially more serious, and is part of the larger issue of how obsolescent or obsolete technology is backed up or preserved. It is at least theoretically possible to keep material on magnetic storage 'fresh' for an extended period, by periodically doing a complete rewrite (so that every magnetic 'bit' representation is brought back to full integrity. But that does not account for degradation in the media used, and preassumes that parts and maintenance for the equipment used for the read and write is both available and correctly adjusted. It's an interesting exercise to see what is involved in connecting a 5.25" floppy ... or an 8" magazine drive, if you want a more interesting excmple ... to a modern PC, let alone a "legacy-free' recent Mac, but once the connection is made, the question of QoS, self-test, etc. also arises, and many people at the 'hobbyist' level have forgotten why very rigorous BITE and other testing provisions were so important back in the day.

One particular concern in the rail field is that much of the 'production' software, even if it hasn't been updated since RS232 was 'the' communication protocol, is that its makers still think they have full rights to it (and would cause legal trouble if you tried to port it or even reverse-engineer it for a modern version). In part this reflects the (correct) inclusion of proprietary 'business knowledge' in the software instantiation. On the other hand, I can imagine an incentive by one or more of the computing museums, or something like Bruce Sterzing's cool-technology-preservation initiative, to go around and make working backup copies of all the drives, cards, and media used in the devices (makes me think of the WPA teams that captured so much contemporary music and culture in the Depression). It would not then be difficult to set up a service, akin to some of the 'driver libraries' for obsolete peripherals, that would provide help and support (perhaps on an open-source organization and pricing model, where not the media but the support is what is charged for) for areas of concern. I am presuming that some ethical way to set this up and administer it can be found, so that individual railroads would not have to hesitate in providing access or media...

_________________
R.M.Ellsworth


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 11:04 am 

Joined: Mon Jan 17, 2005 9:06 pm
Posts: 2164
Location: Thomaston & White Plains
"Bruce Sterzing's cool-technology-preservation initiative"

Wait a minute. WHO?? Bruce Sterzing, the 1970s D&H president?? More info, please. There's a seriously un-reported story here, I think..... And Google search yields nothing on this, just old references to him, ca. 1975.

Howard P.

_________________
"I'm a railroad man, not a prophet."


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 12:49 pm 

Joined: Sat Feb 13, 2010 8:50 pm
Posts: 148
Location: MD
I immediately thought of this when I saw this thread.


Attachments:
devhumor.com_usb.jpg
devhumor.com_usb.jpg [ 61.36 KiB | Viewed 2806 times ]
Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 1:04 pm 

Joined: Thu May 24, 2012 1:37 pm
Posts: 895
Fascinating what a type -- or Freudian slip -- can produce!

That's Bruce STERLING, the science-fiction author.

(It's the little bitty type this BBS software provides. On my system it measures an actual 6 points ON A 24" MONITOR. And I am too lazy to figure out how to change it in global settings...)

_________________
R.M.Ellsworth


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 3:37 pm 

Joined: Sun Oct 19, 2008 12:58 pm
Posts: 1195
Location: Chicago USA
Preston is correct. When modern power hits museums, if something fails that is NLA, the odds are poor that it can be replaced other than with bits and pieces salvaged from similar power going to scrap. It would make sense to make sure to pull computer gear and electronic cards from other power going to scrap at the time of such acquisitions. One can make mechanical parts--it might be costly and maybe your DIY 645 PA's won't be laser hardened--but it can be done. Some electronics can be repaired or duplicated. But when it comes to proprietary chips and so forth, forget it.

Unsupported Windows XP etc. doesn't concern me too much because unlike the Windows on my PC, the one on some on-board system isn't being challenged by virus makers so it should run as reliably or not reliably as ever.

In my own field, cinema, the conversion to digital projection is nearly complete in the US. The 35mm film projectors that have gone to scrap had a lifetime measured in decades. No exaggeration. Machines could be overhauled to run decades more. Even projectors whose builders went out of business in the fifties were still supported by new, aftermarket parts (on popular models) because it just took a machine shop to run off a batch of gears, etc. Presentation from an old projector was still state of the art because the technology was in the film emulsion, the lenses, and having the latest sound equipment.

Now we have projectors which are essentially computers...a number of computers. They are not expected to be supported past ten years, which is a long time for piece of computer gear, but a fraction of what was expected from film gear. Unless one can get a salvage part, once support tends, the machine is toast if something breaks. Too many proprietary electronic parts. And that's even assuming there are no advances that obsolete the present gear sooner. 1st gen DLP cinema projectors haven't been allowed to be used for years now. Anyone who bought one...well...tough luck.

Steve


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sat Feb 15, 2014 8:15 pm 

Joined: Thu Nov 22, 2007 5:46 am
Posts: 2447
Location: S.F. Bay Area
Overmod wrote:
Computer hobbyists already represent a 'tappable' resource for much of this -- at least on the scale that is required for relatively small implementations, or for preserved equipment. It may take some time to duplicate the code for, say, an AD50, to run on a modern processor or VM, and then to build the interfaces necessary to match the cabling, if not the actual connectors.

And don't overlook the concept of hucking out what was done before, and starting from scratch. The classic example is putting late model GM powertrains in older Jaguars, Mercedes and other beloved cars whose engine compartments are filling with unobtanium.

Quote:
Running a coherent orchestration of VMs of different 'platforms' in the cloud is one of the things Microsoft has been touting very recently in its attempts to get enterprise IT to move to their new cloud-centric approach. The problem comes in if you have to edit compiled code, or work with source that has been decommented or even obfuscated. But there are tools to handle these sorts of problems too.

They're trying to get enterprises (companies with >500 people using PCs) to let go of Windows XP, which is the last Windows designed for enterprises. (there was a separate Windows series for consumers.) Microsoft merged them, and enterprises do not like the constant change consumers want.

Anyway, yeah, VM's are a good way to solve that, and "VM on the cloud" makes even more sense because it's simpler, and because it gives people portability they didn't have before. (i.e. you can edit CAD drawings on your Windows-only CAD program, on your iPad at the jobsite.)
Of course none of this applies to Preston's issue, as locomotive controls cannot rely on an Internet connection.




Quote:
This problem is probably not as severe in the railroad world -- severe as it is! -- as in medical and healthcare. I suspect much of the work done in that field with respect to continuing support for legacy systems will apply to railroad applications.

They can just buy a new machine, since medical has even more bottomless pockets than government, and I oughta know, since they are my pockets.


Quote:
The other question that has been raised is potentially more serious, and is part of the larger issue of how obsolescent or obsolete technology is backed up or preserved. It is at least theoretically possible to keep material on magnetic storage 'fresh' for an extended period, by periodically doing a complete rewrite (so that every magnetic 'bit' representation is brought back to full integrity. But that does not account for degradation in the media used, and preassumes that parts and maintenance for the equipment used for the read and write is both available and correctly adjusted. It's an interesting exercise to see what is involved in connecting a 5.25" floppy ... or an 8" magazine drive, if you want a more interesting excmple ... to a modern PC, let alone a "legacy-free' recent Mac, but once the connection is made, the question of QoS, self-test, etc. also arises, and many people at the 'hobbyist' level have forgotten why very rigorous BITE and other testing provisions were so important back in the day.

It's very common to archive the old computer with the old business records. In the basement of the old pallet works we bought at SMRS is an old TRS-80 Model II. It may meet your SOX requirements, but it doesn't actually work for reasons you describe.

Unfortunately computer data cannot just be stored. It MUST be actively curated or it will be destroyed by media rot. Fortunately media keeps getting bigger, so what was once a $100 box of floppies is a speck on a $100 40GB exabyte tape, is a fleck on a $100 2000GB SATA hard drive. And ten years hence we'll need to spend another $100 and get whatever the heck is the latest thing.


It will also be destroyed by format rot. For instance, in 1990 all our documents were Word 5.1, Excel 4 or Pagemaker 4. Nothing can read them. Fortunately my Mac is *just* old enough it can boot OS 10.6 from a thumb drive, which supports Rosetta (backward CPU cpmpatibility) so it can run Word 2003, which can open Word 5.1 and write 2003 .DOC, then I can run Word 2011 and convert 2003 .DOC to current .DOCX. And 20 years hence I'll probably have to do the same thing again.

This is data curating.


Quote:
One particular concern in the rail field is that much of the 'production' software, even if it hasn't been updated since RS232 was 'the' communication protocol, is that its makers still think they have full rights to it (and would cause legal trouble if you tried to port it or even reverse-engineer it for a modern version). In part this reflects the (correct) inclusion of proprietary 'business knowledge' in the software instantiation.

"We want to go after this museum who is copying code from our device, that's in a locomotive in their museum. They said I had to talk to you first, since you're our in-house legal counsel."

"Come with me. See this file cabinet? (swoosh) This first case is our competitor, suddenly their product got temperature compensation after our employee went to work there. Here's a Chinese subcontractor is selling units out the back door. Here's an automaker using our patents in automobiles. Here's a maker claiming they use our products but they don't. There are dozens more. They're good cases we can win and get paid. Which one should I set down to work on yours?

"Then there's the traction company case. They had bought some brass streetcar parts, door handles I think, and they were broken and worn out. The traction company made a mold, and melted down the original parts and cast new ones. The manufacturer sued. The court said it was legit, since they hadn't ended up with any more than they started with, so it was in effect a repair, and the manufacturer has no right to nit-pick over their method of repair. This case helped define Fair Use, which is how you filled your iPod with songs you ripped from your CDs.

"And the hardware is the product, right? The internal software is just a component and we don't even sell it, so it's just an incidental part of the hardware. Hacking on that is akin to jailbreaking a phone. Jailbreaking is not stealing a phone, and it's not even stealing a license to the software since you are entitled to that since you bought the phone. This case may seem special and unique, but courts are going to treat it like jailbreaking.

"On top of that, brutalizing a museum that can't afford the legal defense, and is only trying to continue to use our product, which implies to the public that we do a bad job supporting it. Also that we're goons. There's no win here."


Quote:
On the other hand, I can imagine an incentive by one or more of the computing museums, or something like Bruce Ster[l]ing's cool-technology-preservation initiative, to go around and make working backup copies of all the drives, cards, and media used in the devices (makes me think of the WPA teams that captured so much contemporary music and culture in the Depression). It would not then be difficult to set up a service, akin to some of the 'driver libraries' for obsolete peripherals, that would provide help and support (perhaps on an open-source organization and pricing model, where not the media but the support is what is charged for) for areas of concern. I am presuming that some ethical way to set this up and administer it can be found, so that individual railroads would not have to hesitate in providing access or media...


Ironically that would be harder, since the service would be making copies of software without owning the underlying hardware. To have a backup of iOS 3 is OK, to have a copy of iOS 3 when you don't own an iPhone is gonna upset Apple. To do it legit, they would need the blessing of the manufacturer, who would say "no, because we currently support that just fine" until they don't, then they'll say "you're too late, we dropped support for that."

Filmteknik, the thing about digital projectors is they are very similar to a laser printer, or "TV + a Roku box". They have two key parts. First is an unspecial computer which does all the computational heavy lifting: turning encrypted source material into a very simple bitmap. Second, the "Great Engine" of the machine, which does the physical heavy lifting, like turn that bitmap into light we can see. Which is a very difficult thing to do when the light is 1000 watts. By comparison the computer is trivial and swappable. In cinema, I would expect frequent upgrades of the 'computer part' to be not only possible, but mandatory due to changes in encryption standard and distribution. All of this occurs in the cheap 'computer part'. If any vendor forces you to replace a $49,000 Great Engine simply to upgrade a $1000 'computer part', then they suck, and shun them out of business.


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sun Feb 16, 2014 12:13 am 

Joined: Sun Oct 19, 2008 12:58 pm
Posts: 1195
Location: Chicago USA
LOL But at the heart of what you call the Great Engine are DMD chips which are made exclusively by Texas Instruments.

There are but 4 suppliers of cinema-grade projectors approved by Hollywood: Sony (which uses a sort of liquid crystal thing called LCoS) and then the three makers of DLP Cinema projectors which use the aformentioned DMD chips: Christie, Barco, and NEC. Yes, the entire cinema industry has now come to depend on two companies. And I would not be surprised of Sony ditched the projector business the way they walked away from SDDS movie film sound systems. Options are few.

Steve


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sun Feb 16, 2014 12:37 am 

Joined: Wed Oct 22, 2008 8:18 pm
Posts: 2072
alcoguy1 wrote:
I immediately thought of this when I saw this thread.


that little usb stick could easily have more storage on it that that old PC there...

Everytime Microsoft does this new OS parts of it are no longer compatible to older things,
and older software refuses to run.

I always hang onto my older systems, and that includes one system with ISA slots.

If you get an old Diesel that actually uses say an old win98 system, you may as well look into replacing the op system with the new to make it functional, with all new everything. if you have some specialists out there who has access to the older technologies, good for you, but manufacturers slowly hand up the towels, but....

you got it, new PC's with ISA slots!

http://www.nixsys.com/products/isacompu ... MgodKEUA-Q


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sun Feb 16, 2014 12:43 am 

Joined: Fri Mar 26, 2010 11:43 am
Posts: 419
Location: Floyd, AR
the computer side is the easy part. I work with industrial generator repair, and you can get USB RS-232 converters that are compliant, you just can't buy them at a box store for 10 bucks...they cost closer to $150. They are also now starting to put rs-232 ports back into laptops built for industrial use, because the ports are out there. Software for the PC is important, but often in those older machines you can fudge something, run it in a window, etc, not to mention there are copies in the wild if you look in the right spots..

A HUGE issue is the programming on the part itself. There are usually simply NO backup copies in the wild for them, once the ROM goes corrupt, you are in deep do-do, begging people with working equipment to let you pull it apart to copy the ROM. If you have any equipment like that, you need to try to backup the device software itself.

It's also worth noting that it's good to avoid the temptation of meddling in the programming of a unit that's been working for 20, 30 years. Some older machines will 'brick' (tech term for turn useless) if they get power cycled while being programmed. I had a generator switchgear PLC controller go brain dead on me when I power cycled it-the backup battery was shot so when the power dropped it went blank. The manufacturer offered to fix it by sending a tech halfway across the country and it was going to be an absolute minimum of $5k to fix...

_________________
Robert Longhofer,
Board Member, Cotton Belt Rail Historical Society, Arkansas Railroad Museum, steam engine SSW819.
Any information or opinions I express are my own, and are not the views of the CBRHS or anyone else, unless explicitly stated otherwise.


Offline
 Profile  
 
 Post subject: Re: Computers of the past, in your future?
PostPosted: Sun Feb 16, 2014 8:26 am 

Joined: Mon Aug 23, 2004 11:07 am
Posts: 520
Pegasuspinto wrote:
the computer side is the easy part. I work with industrial generator repair, and you can get USB RS-232 converters that are compliant, you just can't buy them at a box store for 10 bucks...they cost closer to $150. They are also now starting to put rs-232 ports back into laptops built for industrial use, because the ports are out there....


Simple case -- I just replaced my 10 years (or so) XP machine with one that runs under 8.1, but one which doesn't have a parallel port and.....

I have a perfectly good laser printer (for which I have plenty of toner).

To get the thing to work, I had to buy a USP to parallel port cable and spend a couple of hours installing printer drivers and do other stuff to get the thing to work.

Bob H


Offline
 Profile  
 
Display posts from previous:  Sort by  
Post new topic Reply to topic  [ 31 posts ]  Go to page 1, 2, 3  Next

All times are UTC - 5 hours [ DST ]


 Who is online

Users browsing this forum: Bing [Bot], DR, Google [Bot] and 28 guests


You cannot post new topics in this forum
You cannot reply to topics in this forum
You cannot edit your posts in this forum
You cannot delete your posts in this forum
You cannot post attachments in this forum

Search for:
Jump to: