113,800 hours – job well done

This is the first and almost definitely the last time you’ll see me getting sentimental about a piece of hardware.

Not long ago we switched off MESWEB, the server that had been our main web server for ten years, and remained online for another three running legacy software and sites. That’s (you guessed it) roughly 113,000 hours up and running. The server that was bought to replace it four years ago has already been decomissioned – in fact it was decomissioned before its predecessor. These servers are all now virtual, so we will never again know what hardware we’re running, let alone see it or give it a name.

Coincidentally, MESWEB’s lifespan very closely matches my employment with the company, which was also unusually long-lived for our industry. MESWEB was commissioned only a few months before I was hired, and decomissioned a few months after I started my new role with our parent organization, the University of Queensland.

While I’m getting sentimental, this is the end of an era in another way – my involvement with the mighty and sadly defunct Digital Equipment Corporation. Nobody made machines that just kept going like DEC, and MESWEB, while it burnt a few (very expensive, SCSI, hot-swap) disks never had a fault. In fact it’s still in good running order. However, there will be no more DECs, and while carting MESWEB out the door I couldn’t help remembering:

  • The very first program I wrote was about ten lines of Pascal on a PDP-11 terminal in the CS101 lab. Can you imagine a PDP-11 running about 100 terminals? On assignment days the compilation queue stretched out to nearly two hours.
  • My first job was at an aerial survey firm. We were working on PCs (286!) but the survey guys still had their PDP-11 going. I remember the two book-cases of manuals. You want to re-wire the read head on your tape drive? Here’s the circuit diagram. And here’s the assembly code for the BIOS. All that documentation came in handy, as for some reason I got to write the software to read and write 9-track reel-to-reel tapes on the PC.
  • My first job back in the full-time workforce after child-rearing was with a UQ department with a gaggle of epidemiologist’s and a long tradition of hardcore numbercrunching. SAS code makes 8086 assembler look like child’s play! Their DECSystem 10 was long gone but the name plate still hung proudly on the wall, the MicroVaxen sat in the corner desultorily forming quorums, and the new kid on the block was the DEC HX Pentium Pro server. The HX was a couple of model years before MESWEB and had the identical case. With the sole exception that the HX had a power-down on case intrusion “feature” – don’t ask me how I know 🙂

Which brings us back to MESWEB. Lots of memories there. Like the time Scott leant over to look at the back of the server, leant on the UPS power button, and powered down the whole server room. Then spent the next hour putting about eighty layers of sticky tape over the power button. The weeks of research, aided by DEC’s excellent documentation and spare parts service, that preceded installing a second CPU – new VRMs, BIOS and MP kernel included. And the pager. Oh, God, the pager…

So I did the only sensible thing under the circumstances. I brought MESWEB home, along with the external disk array. It’s sitting under my desk in my home office as I type this. I have fantasies of seeing if I can mount modern hardware in the DEC case and use it as my main machine, but I probably won’t – don’t know if I could bear to throw out those VRMs. So it just sits there, and when my i870 gets too cheeky it grumbles a bit and mutters “Ay, but when I were a lad…”

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