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DEC's old but reliable PDP-11s to be used until 2050

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June 19, 2013

Digital Equipment's old but very reliable PDP-11 minicomputers are still used quite a bit today, and we're told that they will continue to power General Electric's nuclear power plant robots until at least 2050. As the old saying goes, if it ain't broke, don't try to fix it.

And make no mistake-- PDP-11 assembler programmers are extremely hard to find these days and will get even harder as time progresses, since the average age of such programmers is well past 60 years old.

Nevertheless, the nuclear industry is planning on keeping PDP-11s for at least another 37 years-– long enough for a couple of generations of programmers to come and go.

If you're a bit skeptical of what you just read, you might want to visit 'Vintage Computer Forums' where GE's Chris Issel has resorted to seek PDP-11 assembly programmers.

Issel is responsible for talent recrutement at GE Canada, and her post says there's a “fantastic opportunity” for a PDP-11 programmer at GE's Peterborough, Ontario operation.

“The role supports the nuclear industry who has committed to continue the use of PDP-11 until 2050”, she writes. That certainly gives PDP-11 programming a longer skill life than OpenVMS – a grandchild of the PDP-11 – which HP announced this month will begin its end-of-life march in 2015 and will lose all support in 2020.

Just remember that DEC's VAX was a 32-bit upgrade to the PDP-11, while VMS was born out of the multiuser version of the PDP series of machines built by DEC at that time.

DEC made PDP-11s from 1970 to into the 1990s, and was one of a succession of products in the PDP series. The PDP-11 replaced the PDP-8 in many real-time applications, although both product lines lived in parallel for more than ten years.

The PDP-11 had several uniquely innovative features, and was easier to program than its predecessors with its use of general registers. Its successor in the mid-range minicomputer niche was DEC's 32-bit VAX-11.

Design features of the PDP-11 influenced the design of microprocessors such as the Motorola 68000. Design features of its operating systems, as well as other operating systems from Digital Equipment at that time, influenced the design of other operating systems such as CP/M and hence also MS-DOS.

The first officially named version of Unix ran on the PDP-11/20 in 1970. It is commonly stated that the C programming language took advantage of several low-level PDP-11–dependent programming features, albeit not originally by design.

It seems that General Electric has decided that an unorthodox approach is needed to find this skill. GE had tried the more conventional approach of advertising on its recruitment site, but the ad has since been taken down.

The GE ad describes the role-- “You will lead the design, implementation and testing of legacy PDP-11 based control systems for robotic applications in nuclear power plants and products. You will also coordinate follow-on support and service of installed systems.”

As well as designing new software and maintaining existing code, GE also wants the candidate to train others, since that person may or may not last 37 years there, depending of course on the current age of that potential candidate.

And make no mistake-- there's still plenty of COBOL in use even today, but what other old but still running OSs and programming languages do our readers use? You can send us a line or two, and we will gladly write a follow up article on the topic.

In other IT news

Along with IBM, Fujitsu, Silicon Graphics and a few more, Cray is a company that builds powerful and fast supercomputers, and now it's dropping the price on its largest server array down into a more affordable solution that companies or scientists can more readily buy.

Cray's supercomputer sports a new price tag of 'just' 1/2 million dollars. But compare that to the $1 billion-plus price tag on Fujitsu's "K" supercomputer installed in Japan in 2011. So 1/2 million dollars now sounds affordable by those standards.

Cray's XC30-AC, which 'goes on sale' today, is Cray's lowest-cost supercomputer. It has the same software and powerful CPUs as its larger sibling, the XC-30, which typically sells for $10 million to $30 million, depending on the configuration and its various features.

If you were to run a complex problem on the smaller computer while running the same query on an equal number of processors in the higher-end Cray, you'd get your answer in just about the same amount of time.

Now that sets it apart from past Cray attempts to target a lower end of the market from competing offerings from IBM, HP, Dell and other rivals. Those vendors also sell "discount" supercomputers, but they tend to use different components than their top-of-the-line machines, said Steve Conway, an analyst at IDC.

Supercomputer systems are now enjoying a popularity surge for the last two years. Their sales rose 30 percent last year from the year earlier, according to IDC. And Cray, one of the market's first builder of those monsters is riding the wave.

It made $420 million in revenue in 2012, up 78 percent from 2011, and is targeting sales of $500 million for this year.

"In 2003, supercomputer makers were trying to build large systems that perhaps one-hundred people around the world would use," said Barry Bolding, Cray's vice president of storage and data management marketing.

Back then, the market was almost entirely government, aerospace (think NASA) and mostly universities with large research budgets. As Bolding puts it-- "They were wanting to simulate the Big Bang or model nuclear explosions or do things the government doesn't want to tell us about."

Source: IT Direction.

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