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Old Gear
Old network gear keeps on humming, but may die a fast Y2K death.

Network World, 03/29/99

Keeping antiquated technology flying is in Chris Harrison's blood. A pilot and former reseller of airplane parts, Harrison is proud of the fact that he uses old and even salvaged hardware to run his company's network.

Phoenix Communications Services, the Internet access and paging company he owns in Dallas, uses a server he got for free and a PBX he bought at auction for $250.

While the gear isn't new, or even under warranty, it suits his purposes: "It works, and it's more bang for your buck."

Harrison is far from the only one wringing the last drops of usefulness out of technology you might expect to find on the scrapheap instead of working in active networks.

Whether to avoid making huge capital investments in upgrades or to keep tried-and-true applications running, network administrators are stretching the age limits of their network hardware and software.

In Harrison's case he says he got a Sun SPARCserver 690 chassis for free and added four 1.6G-byte drives a friend gave him.

"According to Sun, it's obsolete, but according to me, it kicks ass. And I paid nothing for it," Harrison says.

As for Harrison's PBX, which debuted in the 1970s: "You couldn't buy something comparable for ten grand. And it's also a space heater," he jokes.

Keep 'em happy

Harrison runs his own show, so he can do what he wants, but others don't have the luxury to dictate what stays in their networks and what goes.

Bruce McIntosh, a data center senior engineer for the University of Florida at Gainesville, can't retire 15-year-old IBM 7171 protocol converters that have been at the school longer than he has.

"A very small, very vocal group of people says the 7171s are the best way to access the mainframes. There isn't a telnet arrangement that can keep them happy, so we keep the 7171 boxes up," he says.

Those same users could dial in to more modern Cisco 5100 and 5300 terminal servers that other users call, but they won't.

The loyalists claim to get better response dialing in to the aging converters at 2.4K bit/sec than dialing the terminal servers at 28.8K bit/sec. As long as users still want them, there is no reason to get rid of them.

"They still work fine," McIntosh says.

Despite what users think, some gear is so well-suited to a specific task that it will likely never be replaced. The venerable Digital PDP-11 of 1980s vintage, for example, has found a permanent home in at least one U.S. military application.

The box is the core component of a training simulator for artillerymen who aim cannon fire. "When people are learning the methods of adjusting fire from single or multiple guns, it takes awhile for the basic concepts to sink in. With a simulator, the rounds are virtual," says Andy Kemp, who used to maintain such a system for the Marines and is now a senior systems engineer for Powertel, a wireless phone company in West Point, Ga.

The PDP-11 does its job, and it doesn't have to be fast, he says. All it has to do is convert digital input to analog controllers.

"The maintenance costs are fairly low, failure of components internal to the PDP is rare and operator training is inexpensive," he says. That's a winning combination.

The simulator is not threatened by Year 2000 because the system clock doesn't have to be in sync with the real world, just other nodes, Kemp says.

Wang VS-65Y2K, though, is the end of the road for other gear, including a Wang VS-65 that cost $250,000 in 1984 and is still in use at University Mechanical Contractors in Seattle. Once the anchor of the company's accounting system, the VS-65's specifications are unimpressive by today's standards: 1,024K bytes of RAM and 2G bytes of fixed storage. It has 8mm and 1/2-inch reel-to-reel tape backups.

As a result, the VS-65 isn't asked to do much anymore, says Chris Bondelid, a systems administrator for University Mechanical.

"We still have it operating for legacy accounting info lookups, but it's mainly burning electrons, twiddling its thumbs. It's slower than molasses in January," he says.

But it is a known system, it is paid for and it still meets the needs of the records-lookup application.

"It has been solid as a rock," Bondelid says.

Plus it has entertainment value. "All my friends that come over look at it and their eyes bug out," he says.

But soon it will be decommissioned. "It supports an old COBOL application that would be too hard and costly to make Y2K-compliant," Bondelid says.

What will happen to the VS-65? "We're possibly thinking of asking Wang if they want it back for testing or training purposes," Bondelid says with a smile.

Y2K is claiming other workhorses, including the 1992 Cisco IGS router blade in a Cabletron MMAC-3 hub that until earlier this year provided remote access to a branch office of the National Cancer Institute in Fort Detrick, Md.

Earlier this year, the router was still running Cisco's IOS 8.3(3); Cisco is currently shipping IOS 12.

Since the hub/router combination was installed, Cisco and Cabletron stopped doing business with each other.

"This was from the two vendors' friendlier days," says Tom Zanylo, a network analyst for Science Applications International, which administers the cancer institute's network.

But the MMAC-3 wasn't broke, so nobody thought to fix it, Zanylo says. However, Cisco says it won't support the router after 2000. So the institute traded it in during a network upgrade from a shared Ethernet to a switched Ethernet LAN.

While some network executives tolerate old gear until it is forced into retirement, others actively weed it out.

The U.S. Department of Education, for example, is in the midst of upgrading its Student Financial Assistance Program network from SNA to TCP/IP, says Tim Weil, a network consultant working on the project for RPM Consulting of Columbia, Md.

ZIP!SNA Gateways from Attachmate, 10-year-old DOS-based devices that Attachmate no longer supports, still link the department's desktops to its mainframes. The gateways are showing their age.

"When you walk down the hall and open the cabinet, you can just rub the dust off the top of the things. Whenever I look, there's a fingerprint from the last guy who was there," Weil says.

The fact that the gateways still work won't save them.

"The motivation for going forward isn't that it doesn't work. It all works. The desire to get into a complete TCP/IP architecture is, well, we want to get into the 20th century before it's over," Weil says.

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