Aging Computer Infrastructure

Doghouse – Old Systems

Article from Issue 237/2020
Author(s):

As unemployment claims surge, US computer systems are straining under the increased load. In this column, maddog weighs in on COVID-19 and COBOL.

The first language I ever programmed was Fortran, and I learned to program it in 1969 by reading a book and practicing on an IBM 1130 computer that ran one job at a time and had basically no operating system. You linked the device drivers for the hardware into your program and effectively booted your program, not the operating system. Later in life, I would tell my students that we were not doing "Computer Science," but "Computer Black Magic."

Few systems were "networked," or if they were, they were dial-up networks to computers that held "bulletin boards" for exchanging programs and data. Music was on vinyl, and graphics were ASCII art printed on line printers (for the most part).

I am writing this today because of a YouTube video by Russell Brandom (https://www.youtube.com/watch?reload=9&v=Ox_Wm6XQnxI), who criticized the US government for still using COBOL on certain systems. He said that these systems were not up to the huge number of unemployment claims currently being filed, whereas companies like Netflix can scale to meet the large number of demands on them "even during the coronavirus outbreak." He inferred that it was the "fault" of COBOL.

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