Obsolescent but not Obsolete

Retired 400 MHz AMD chip PC, 10 GB disk, Beowulf Node

Retired 400 MHz AMD chip PC, 10 GB disk, Beowulf Node

I’ve been meaning to make this posting “for a while”. Some months ago, folks made some generous donations that let me “move on” from this particular bit of hardware. Thanks to you all.

I had “fished it out” of the garage over a year ago to do the initial “port” of GIStemp to Linux. I had it. It had Linux on it already. It was likely to be “fast enough” for the compilation and development work. And most importantly (though I didn’t say much about it) it was a single node of a “half dozen or so” node Beowulf Cluster. If I needed more “ooomph” I could just add more nodes.

I expected to get the code ported, then find out that a single node was way too underpowered, and put a little time into making it run on a Beowulf Cluster as an interesting project in distributed computing. I was very surprised when I found that GIStemp did so little that it ran to completion in a few minutes on this single old node.

The box started life as a “386 White Box” some decades ago. (Keen observers will notice the 5 1/4 inch floppy drive in the front bay… yes, a REAL floppy drive where the diskettes did “flop”! And yes, it still works! Though getting media is becoming harder 8-) About a decade and a half ago ( or maybe two…) I “upgraded it” to a new AT style motherboard and added a 400 MHz AMD chip. Along with making the memory a very large 128 MB. Red Hat 7.2 Linux runs in that hardware just fine, and this box has done many good things for me.

Vectra and Compaq Evo and iMac

So now I’ve gone and moved the GIStemp port onto an HP Vectra running Linux, most of my work is done from a Compaq Evo, and I’ve got an iMac box that does Open Office along with some of the interface and visual stuff that Macs do best. They are all “well loved” and come from a “prior life” as some personal computer for various folks. Never imagining that “late in life” they would be employed in Climate Science Research. (Something to which I can relate… )

So now the old workhorse Beowulf node is going back to the garage. There to wait for the next time it can be of service. (No, I’m not going to toss it out. It is “period correct” for GIStemp ;-) and is serving as a backup copy even as it sits. I’ve erased nothing from it, so in the event of a catastrophic destruction of everything else, it will remain, ready to “step up to the plate” again, if needed. It has a fine steel skin (off of the photo, but soon to be put back on) so is more immune to various insults that the current crop of plastic things. It may not be as fast, but it can take a punch and keep on running.

Thanks, and Until Next Time, Old Friend

So to all of you who have been involved, a thank you. And may you lift a small beverage in salute to Old Friends and new roles in life. And remember that though you may be slowing down and becoming obsolescent, you are not obsolete as long as you are alive.


About E.M.Smith

A technical managerial sort interested in things from Stonehenge to computer science. My present "hot buttons' are the mythology of Climate Change and ancient metrology; but things change...
This entry was posted in AGW GIStemp Specific, GISStemp Technical and Source Code and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

20 Responses to Obsolescent but not Obsolete

  1. boballab says:

    LOL That thing dates back to my computer that died not that many months ago.

  2. RK says:

    So what does your climate research lab have in terms of computing equipment? Inquiring minds want to know.

  3. Vince Werber says:

    I have a few older machines hanging around here… including a DEC Rainbow… It was one of the first dual CPU units that I can recall… one CPU for I/O and the other for the other good things.

    Today I use a bunch of re-cycled boxes on Slackware Linux… an Intel 1.2ghz, a Compaq Presario at 2.2ghz, two Dell (?) 600 mhz and a dell laptop at 1.2 ghz… There are 286′, 386’s, 486’s etc etc in my storage room…

    I have been gifted all of these from others as they ‘upgrade’ their systems… Of course I do the set-up for these newer machines for these folks :-)

    I do re-cycle :-)


  4. boballab says:

    I think EM put what he has in his post but if you are asking what I replaced my poor old dead Compaq with, it was this:

    A Gateway SX2840-01

    with an Intel Core i3 Processor 530, 1Terrabyte Hard Drive, 6GB of DDR3 memory, Integrated Intel GMA HD graphics and running Windows 7 Home Premium 64 bit.

    The good: Small size, quality video playback, and HDMI output make it a viable home theater PC; virtualized quad-core Intel CPU offers competitive performance for its price; massive 1TB hard drive; room for half-height expansion cards.

    The bad: No wireless networking; relative power hog compared with the Mac Mini.

    The bottom line: Gateway’s SX2840-01 remains the budget PC to beat. Its combination of small size, fast performance, and living room competence makes it one of the most flexible desktops on the market. That it has room to upgrade makes the deal that much sweeter. We recommend this desktop to anyone looking for a powerful, versatile low-cost computer.


    One thing of note under their bad heading they said there was no wireless networking but I was using it with my in home wireless network (based on an old Linksys Wireless G router) since the day a brough it home. The problem was that at the time Windows 7 didn’t have a built in way to use my adapter but I was able to find one on the net that worked. Not too long afterwards Micro$oft came out with an update to Wn 7 that allows wireless networking with a built in feature.

    Also it forced me to retire my old 13″ VGA monitor for a Samsung 22″ 1080i HD one

  5. j ferguson says:

    OMG, I hadn’t seen a Turbo-Gazebo in years.

    I find it hard, really hard, to toss old machines. Dad ran financial projections on Osborne 1 until a year ago when he decided he couldn’t outlive his wherewithal. I bought it to computerize specifications at construction design office – Wordstar yet. We also ran our real-estate deals through it and discovered that HP-16 equipped U of Chi grads weren’t as sharp as we’d all thought. It was first in continuous then weekly use from 1983 to 2009. Dad knew how to disassemble it and clean the brass edge-card connectors when performance got intermittent due to corrosion.

    SWMBO’s dad ran fusion deuterium (could be wrong maybe smaller particles) orbital calcs on Apple II until 10 years ago. A typical run took two days.

    We run boat navigation on Armada M300’s ten years old. I finally gave up on old Thinkpad butterfly when the rubber coating started to shed.

    As I think you once said that these things keep being good at doing what they did when they were current with period OS’s and applications and if that’s what you need, why not?

  6. E.M.Smith says:

    @RK: I have way too much equipment, most of it old ;-)

    @Vince Werber: In the “collection” is an old Radio Shack computer that I bought God only knows how long ago, but about the late 1970’s or very early ’80s. It’s a hand held calculator like thing that ‘speaks BASIC’ and is a dual CPU unit. 2 CPUs that are 4 bits each. Yes, 4 bit processors. One for I/O the other for computes. It would do “chaining” from one program to another on external media. (i.e. tape). I had a dictation recorder attached to it for storing data and programs (as modulated audio!) and used it for calculating expense reports (in about 1980 IIRC). Uses 2 “button cell” batteries as in old hearing aides.

    Has a built in display. ONE LINE of text…

    I’ll have to find it, fire it up, and post pictures ;-)

    Great fun to play with, and lots of fun to ask folks (in the era..) if they would like to see my dual processor machine with external tape drive 8-)

    @J. Ferguson: There is no need eo ever toss old machines until the hardware breaks. Just make them part of a Beowulf Cluster. It’s not very hard, and they can continue to run until they die a natural death. I have some that are in use as Linux routers (an old 8 MB memory Hitachi laptop!) and as various storage servers etc.

    Per my total hardware:

    That would take a while to list it all. Mostly old and by todays standards un-interesting, but LINUX lets them keep on doing “good work”. In addition to the stufff listed above, there is an iBook laptop (that I’m using right now), a few more Beowulf nodes, my kids have a couple of very new iBook / (whatever they call last year’s model of Mac laptop) computers, I’ve got an old 128 K memory MAC Plus in the garage along with an old Sparc 20 and Sparc 10 (I think!) that I’ve not fired up in years (having more than I need in the Linux on Pentiums)

    I”m sure there’s more in the corners that I’ve forgotten…

    Oh, and I’ve got a few old laptops, including some of the earliest Mac laptops….

  7. j ferguson says:

    Sparc IPX with many daisy-chained little boxes with 1 gB disks, tapes, cd drives, and 8 mm backup tapes. It hasn’t been run since 2003 – I suspect the HostID built in battery will be dead, BUT, i have an article on how to make a new one, and I kept the code to flash mine – thing has old software on it I could never afford to buy today.

    Radio Shack Model 100 – maybe first notebook. Still works. A lot of the reporters in Chicago used them in 84. I bought it on sight and nearly passed out on way out of store. It was the most expensive impulse purchase I ever made and when I realized it, I just went blank for a few seconds.

    I had to toss old minis, Suns and Decs. We did have them doing odds and ends at the office, but they really sucked up the power. Those 8 inch sabre drives with (gasp) 60 Megs could really eat watts.

    We got them on trade-ins but Sun made us ship the motherboards back to California in order to get credit for taking them off the street. So they ended up not quite Zombies, more headless horsemen.

    The casters alone on some of those things had cost big bucks.

    btw, how does what you are doing with these things accord with your Benz accumulating? Will all of this REALLY fit in .125 acre?

    SWMBO at my place won’t stand for a whole lot of this.

    keep it up – for those of us who can’t.

  8. Eric Barnes says:

    Pretty cool stuff folks. :)

    I have a former ibm eserver I got off ebay for 99$ about 5 years ago with dual 1.1 ghz cpus, 100G of SCSI disk space and 512 M of RAM. Hopelessly outdated by most peoples standards, but with debian lenny and google-chrome, dual 100MB NICS and a RADEON video card I added it’s more than I need for darned near anything I would want. It’s just *really* hard to throw something like that away!

    The only computer parts that really needed upgrading in my fleet of computers for the last 10 years are monitors and video cards. The rest can be done without. :)

    It is truly amazing how fast todays computers are, and it’s a good thing too because there are so many examples of outrageous misuse of hardware/software. A few years ago the company I was working for implemented a data warehouse, but instead of extracting data from the production database with one of the bulk transfer tools provided by oracle, the general purpose pl/sql was used to read and insert record by record from the OLTP DB to the warehouse! Needless to say the warehouse load was taking 8+hours to crunch through about a gig of data even though it was running on a $100,000+ HP Server. Complain as I might, I couldn’t convince the powers that be that using the tools oracle created for bulk data transfer would cut the production window down below an hour. Fortunately there was an upgrade to a brand spanking new $100,000+ Server. This solved the problem (at least until data volume catches up with us again).

  9. Gnomish says:

    Eric- windows search is deadly slow because it uses he API – a dos search is 1000 times faster- it just reads the FAT.
    That’s where the power of the hardware went with windows- microsoft.vs.moore, bloating to double every 18 months and keeping up with technology!

    Old thngs are comfortable. I own tools I’ve held and kept for longer than my wife…lol.
    If I drop one, I apologize to it…

    In keeping with the theme, here is a sort of Painter Bob does Sanford & Sons-

  10. E.M.Smith says:

    @J Ferguson: Well, a couple of cars are with my Son at his place. One tends to be perpetually at the mechanic (as mentioned above) and the street is not part of my 1/8 ac. and that’s where the rest are parked. Drive a different one each day so they keep moving about.

    The computers would make a stack that did not fill a single bookcase. The laptops are small (why most of my ‘old machines’ are laptops… about 1/2 dozen?) and the two old SPARCs have no monitors. So about the size of a box for cowboy boots. The Evo is dinky, like 2 reams of printer paper stacked. I’m down to one old Sony glass tube monitor (for anything that balks at boot without a std glass tube…) so there are only 2 flat panel displays to take desk space.

    I figure the whole hardware pile would fit in about a 4 x 4x x8 foot space (“cord” of computers?…) with room under the desk for my feet…

    But yes, it’s more crowded than I like. (We were supposed to move to a 3 x larger home a few years back, but SWMBO didn’t want to go… ergo stuck in the ‘small place’ as kids go to college… and prices drop.) So I’m slowly doing a purge. Tossed 2 or 3 of the old Beowulf Nodes about 4? months back. One I managed to crack a memory socket testing various old memory sticks. Another has the power supply die. Yeah, I could have raided it for parts, but instead just set it out with a “free” sign on it (after cleaning disk…) Let some kid take it apart… I think I’m down to 3 nodes now. Whenever I uncover the SPARCs, they will go too. Haven’t used them in 10 years and expect the battery driven stuff is long dead. Some time or other I’m going to look over the old lap tops and toss a couple. One, an old Toshiba, was my major machine for a while, until the screen died. I’ve used it with an external monitor (due to the software being a bit irreplaceable for a couple of things – like configuration SW for my wireless router); but I’m ready to move it onto the Evo and just be done (once I find that last CD of SW… 8-)

    Oh, and per Micro$oft sucking hardware dry:

    That is my complaint about them, in a nutshell. They assume all growth in hardware speed is for them to consume, not you. They waste it in code bloat so less skilled folks can write slow crappy code, but still work OK and look OK. The PC of today is faster than the supercomputer of the early 1990s. (The one I managed then was 400 M-Flops and had 64 M-Bytes of memory… along with 30 GB of damn fast disk – and 2 TB of ‘backing store’ tape…) Well, you can get 400 ops / second out of a laptop these days. It was 4 CPUs, and you can get dual processor dual core machines fairly cheap.

    So were did all the speed go?

    My Brother-in-law once showed me an interesting little graph. It was efficiency improvement in “computes” over the years from improved hardware and software. The hardware curve followed Moore’s Law. The software curve was steeper! This means that better crafted software doing things you thought about a while improved total productivity faster than Moore’s Law. The necessary corollary to this is that crappy software, poorly thought through and sloppily written, can suck any hardware to death and then some.

    FWIW, in a ‘prior life’ I was a database senior consultant. My specialty was efficiency. On one occasion the State of California had a large IBM mainframe database server that was 95% or so utilized and they needed to spend a few $Million more to buy a new one. About 2 weeks later I finished my “efficiency review” and had re-written a bunch of their codes. Machine was 4% utilized…

    The reason was simple. The database package let you write ‘non-procedural’ code that was very English like and it would figure out what to do. But not always very efficiently. By knowing what was happening, you change things a bit and get WAY faster. Little things, like move the selection of records to the first step ahead of sorting and doing math. I had a 26 point checklist. By the time they were all checked, pretty much every code was improved. Often spectacularly.

    Today we have similar “issues” in software development where folks use Object Oriented as a cudgel to whack the procedural guys. Yeah, it can make writing code more interesting, but the efficiency of a good low level language is a thing of beauty. Then we link a few GB of libraries into a code that prints “Hello World” and wonder why it doesn’t fit in 1 kB any more.

    Even Linux is not immune, but it does have a bit less of an issue. I’ve got a 5.2 release that runs in 8 kB on the Hitachi (but wants 16 kB to do graphics). Last I looked, the recent releases wanted a couple of hundred MB (but would still run in 128 MB). BUT the slope of the ramp is way lower than M$ stuff.

    So if you just step off the Micro$oft software treadmill, you can get spectacularly fast hardware with quite nice software that works wonders right now, and will continue to work wonders for a decade or two to come. The only real issues I’ve run into with the older releases of Linux were lack of support for wireless cards (plug in an external wireless bridge to the ethernet port) and web browsers not keeping pace with change in the internet use of protocols and ‘features’ (use a different box for your browsing).

  11. j ferguson says:


    I sold a Sparc 1 pizzabox to a Miami shoe manufacturer. They found us. I got a call from their IT person, a very charming Turkish Civil Engineer who had found her way to our shores and concluded she’d have more fun in IT than civil.

    She had a performance spec which could readily be satisfied by a Sparc 1 with an additional external HD, a tape drive and printer.

    I was asked to bring a setup over for a demo.

    When I got there I was asked if I’d like to see their current installation.


    It was a Liebert stabilized room full of disk packs, immense line printer, and other IBM machinery. It ran their business.

    We did a trial run of the demo and then the owner was asked in to see what we had.

    He asked if we really proposed substituting this little box for the room full of equipment.


    IT Chief, whose name I wish I could remember, said not only would it replace it but would double the performance in a couple of parameters that were important to them.

    “What does it cost?”

    I said the number.

    “Good, buy two and when it’s up and you’re sure it’s ok, see if we can get out of the IBM lease on all that stuff.”

    She later apologized saying that she should have asked for two machines and then I might have sold them four.

    She was from Ismir as was a fellow CE working in IT at one of the cruise lines.

    I can remember her name.

    Sinan, do you truly appreciate what you have over there?

  12. Sinan Unur says:

    @j ferguson:

    Sinan, do you truly appreciate what you have over there?

    I am not sure. Do you mean Upstate New York or Turkey?


    PS: s/Ismir/Izmir/

  13. j ferguson says:

    Maybe Turkey although I only have three Turkish Expatriates to judge from – all good people with outrageous senses of humor especially the dear guy I worked for in Philadelphia. Again from Ismir, but this time a farm.

    Well, there’s you too.

    Upstate New York – Ithaca?

    there’s more but I should use email.

  14. Sinan Unur says:

    @j ferguson: there’s more but I should use email.

    Please do. It’s in my reply to your previous email or you can use http://www.unur.com/sinan/contact.html

  15. You just made me remember Borland’s “Turbo-Basic” . I made a “I-Ching” on it…

  16. Chuckles says:

    Would this pack-rat tendency to preserve such artefacts be a tendency of engineer s or more a Calvinistic thing?

    I must add that I’m not ‘casting nasturtiums’ as I’m one of the worst offenders having two 76 inch high 19″ racks full of Compaq servers, quite apart from the more usual elderly desktops and laptops. But it might come in useful one day…

  17. j ferguson says:

    But are you being served?

    btw, got Pinker. Outstanding.

  18. boballab says:

    I wouldn’t call it an Engineer thing (even though I had an EE course at Nuke Power school) since I spent most of my Naval career repairing electronics some that dated back to the 1950’s (yes lots and lots of tunes). So I guess that attitude of “Well it still works, or made to work, so keep it” rubbed off.

    During my last move it hurt like hell to get rid of my old Vic 20, Amiga 1000 and Tandy Color Computer II. I drew the line at my old 386 that I had fixed up to run faster then some of the early Pentiums :)

  19. E.M.Smith says:

    For me, at least, it’s that the equipment still does something I want done. In some cases, I can’t find the media to reinstall some bit of software (or it doesn’t run on the newest Windoze release…). As the application dies, the machines go.

    But things on Linux tend to keep running a long time. So those boxes hang around longer.

    Basically, if it works, provides a value, and doesn’t cost much (anything?) to let it sit there, I let it sit there.

    And, frankly, having spent a dozen+ years of my life doing ‘computer upgrades’ commercially on thousands of machines, I’m happy to not do another computer upgrade cycle unless it really is of benefit to me ;-)

  20. PhilJourdan says:

    If your 5 1/4 drive fails, I still have some spares that work! ;)

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