Remember when enterprise administration was more than just a browser dashboard?

Playing Colossal Cave Adventure on an ICL 2966 and coding on the last Elliott 803

Retro Tech Week Keeping old computers running for everyone to enjoy is getting increasingly difficult as the years pass. Parts get harder to obtain, and the skills needed start fading away.

Peter Onion can usually be found in The National Museum of Computing's (TNMOC) Large Systems Gallery, where machines include a huge ICL 2966 mainframe and a pair of Elliott computers. One, an Elliott 803, is the last working example in the UK. There is another machine at London's Science Museum, but it is not currently on display.

Onion spends a lot of time keeping the 803 ticking over. He recently produced a symbolic assembler for the system named OCode. High-level languages such as ALGOL 60 are available, but going to a lower level requires tedious machine code tinkering, hence OCode. One could argue that he is in the enviable position of capturing 100 percent of the Elliott 803 market. Admittedly, TNMOC has the only running 803 in the country, but we won't quibble about details.

The Elliott dates back to the 1960s, and the team has worked to make it more accessible.

Onion says: "The 803, in particular, was originally paper tape for input and output. Media is another thing that's becoming rarer, more expensive, and more difficult to deal with.

"It's only recently that we've got a restored teleprinter working for the 803 so I can now actually type on a machine and punch tape. And it's incredibly tedious."

To deal with the issue, Onion turned to the Raspberry Pi and built a device that the museum calls the "paperless tape station." Effectively, it is a device that looks like a paper tape reader and a paper tape punch but interfaces with the Pi. Thus, an application window shows what is going in, and another shows what is coming out. Most importantly, the device cuts down on mechanical wear and tear.

"There's no permanent connection," explains Onion, "it's just clipped in with test probes to the appropriate signal. And it makes the machine useable."

The challenge facing the caretakers of these machines is how to keep them usable. And, more importantly, how to get people writing code for them.

"A lot of the machines in the museum don't get programmed," he says. "They have a set of demos that they run, and they're interesting – the visitors find them interesting – there's a couple of games on the 2966, but nobody is actually developing software."

We had a go at the Colossal Cave Adventure while at the museum but were distracted by the gloriously orange terminal used to enter commands.

Onion continues: "The only machine that gets regularly programmed is the 803 because of this paperless tape station, which actually means that there are other volunteers who have been programming the machine.

"Give them the programming manuals, and they've gone away and written code.

"There's nothing that gives me more pleasure than to be able to sit in my chair on Saturday afternoon and watch somebody else using the machine."

One benefit of elderly computers is that they are very repairable in a way that modern kit is not. A knowledgeable technician armed with a soldering iron can do most jobs. In terms of spare components for the 803, Onion tells us that TNMOC is relatively well-off. "We actually found another CPU cabinet in a scrapyard," he says.

However, while functioning hardware is all well and good, having someone coding for the machine is even better.

Onion touched on the topic of hardware wear and tear for the 803, and the approach of using a Raspberry Pi crops up elsewhere. The museum has a substantial disc farm for the huge ICL 2966, none are used. The Large Systems Gallery is an impressive space, but it is hardly the pristine air-conditioned datacenter where the mainframe would have started its life.

"We don't actually have the environment to run spinning discs in," says Onion. "We're not in a clean enough condition. We're not temperature stable."

And so the decision comes down to how much of the computer actually needs to be running. In the case of the 2966, the team has an SD card interface to replace the spinning discs, thus preserving the mechanical parts that wear out while still having the cabinets humming away. This is assuming one knows the correct way to start and stop the devices. There is no big on/off switch, after all.

TNMOC Large Systems Gallery (pic: TNMOC)

The large systems gallery at the UK's National Museum of Computing ... Used with permission. Click to enlarge

Jacqui Garrad, the museum director, is justifiably proud of TNMOC. "We need more people to come in and help us manage this wonderful collection. Help with knowledge transfer. Come in and get this stuff off Peter."

Mentoring is vital. Garrad says: "We are custodians of this stuff. We don't just go 'Get on with it!'"

With modern machinery becoming ever more bland in the pursuit of slim and thin, and an administrator's role nowadays consisting of studying a dashboard in a browser, The Reg can't help but feel nostalgic for the orange terminal connected to the ICL 2966.

Thankfully, it is still possible to have some hands-on time with the enterprise technology of decades past because of organizations such as TNMOC. The cloudy efforts of today are unlikely to be regarded with the same affection. ®

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