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1980s Amiga has been running the AC and heat in 19 schools for 30 years (geek.com)
230 points by flippyhead 38 days ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 164 comments

At McMurdo Station, Antarctica the ~2000 line phone system still runs on a NEC PBX purchased second-hand in the 60s from a prison. A couple years ago a line card broke and so a staff member was sent on a mission to go to a junkyard in Nebraska and harvest all the spare parts they could out of an old one.

They’re finally moving over to VOIP, but there was something romantic about this giant refrigerator sized behemoth, ready to break down at a moments notice. The battery backup system for it was homemade, about 24 car batteries in another room on a shelf, daisy chained together behind an inverted. Soon, it’ll be replaced with two pizza box sized servers.

I'm surprised you can find a mid century PBX in a junk yard, and that if you could the parts wouldn't be completely destroyed by the elements. Is there some kind of indoor tech junkyard somewhere?

Weird Stuff in the Bay Area used to be exactly this. Until it closed down earlier this year, sadly.

HSC is the equivalent for lower-level electronic parts. They’ll also be closing down in January.

What is HSC? I missed out on ever getting a chance to visit Weird Stuff in the Bay Area and if there's other cool shops in the area I'd like to check em out before they close down!



They've been around for a long time. Jobs and Woz apparently bought parts there for the original apple computers.

RE-PC in Seattle is like an indoor tech junkyard.

dang it, was just up there for kubecon and would have loved to visit such a place :-(

3R is too on some levels.

Well, the copious amounts of waste heat from the old PBX can be put to good use.

If its really from the 60's its likely electromechanical, and uses almost no power at idle - like less than 1a at 48v

So it's cooler, more reliable, AND bigger than modern computers? We need to go back.

Not really more reliable - they required regular servicing, Electromechanical phone switches did - contacts being cleaned, that sort of thing - Modern digital or IP stuff is largely turn it on and stuff it in a closet

Except for security updates, software bug fixes, etc.

If the system was found to have a security flaw, that would be even harder to fix in vintage hardware.

Except that no sane person would hook this thing up directly to the internet anyway.

So it basically comes down to security flaws exposed to whatever interfaces it really is connected to.

I’m confused about the topic. How would one connect a 60s PBX to the internet? The suggestion was ‘we need to go back’ to this style of architecture, I think, not that we should use vintage 60s phone hardware.

It switches analog phone lines, so it could (and I'm sure did) act as a control plane for modem links. (Over which it was possible to send TCP/IP, etc.)

People actually do this with SIP gateways.

Miniaturization and flexibility come at a cost. Today's iPhone is more powerful than the computers used for the Apollo mission.

A TI-89+ is more powerful than the computers used in the Apollo mission.

> Miniaturization and flexibility come at a cost.

Companies have little to no incentive to update software for older products unless there are lucrative support contracts. This has been the case for decades.

Can confirm, was quiet and sat in an open room with other workstations around with no extra fans, cooling, etc. But, it's administered with a CLI computer hooked up, so not sure it is truly 'electromechanical'.

That's from the 80s or 90s then

...Or a retrofit from that period?

No, you don't go from 60s era tech to 90s era in phones without s forklift. Moving from electromechanical to stores program control is a sea change.

It's like going from Hollerith card based tabulators to a System/360

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In the article it says the system was programmed by a highschool student 30 years ago. Now the replacement cost is 1.5-2 million.

So much to say about this. One is the optics of employing students three decades ago, another is the remarkable faith they put into one at the time - which appears to have been well founded. Today, this sort of thing would never happen.

But overall, I get the feeling that people today are afraid of things they can't vendor out, things they can't replace cookie-cutter style. Sometimes that concern is justified, when you think in terms of support spanning decades, but overall I see it as a vertical integration of bureaucracy all around us.

It's not just this control system, it's everything. Was it Caltrans that hit a modernization roadblock because the agency hand-built railway sensors and circuits around that same time and now can't find replacement parts because people don't build things in-shop anymore?

>So much to say about this. One is the optics of employing students three decades ago, another is the remarkable faith they put into one at the time - which appears to have been well founded. Today, this sort of thing would never happen.

What remarkable faith? It's a program to start/stop AC/heat units based on temperatyre readings, not to send people to Mars.

A talented high school student can write one today, and do it with a Rasberry Pi and for much less than $1 million (more like 5-10K).

Not as a student, but as a temp in a secondary education unit, I maintained and updated the payroll system used to pay ~50 schools and over 1000 teachers every month. It was a VB/MS SQL thing written by another temp a few years earlier, but it did the job.

Rhetorical question: were you a licensed CPP, CPA or an actuary when you were a temp in your secondary education unit? That's literally my point.

Yes, these things can all be done by amateurs. By tinkerers. We all here know it. We've done it. You've done it. Simple devices with telemetry and some logic. Simple programs that do complex things in the aggregate. Take it to your back yard, and either one of us or a highschool student could make a traffic light cheaper than $250,000 - $500,000 per intersection (WA state estimate). But neither one of us could build, install and maintain a quarter million of them, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to mobilize an army of nerds to make it scalable.

Yeah, for all we know a PE was involved in oversight of the project. That's an unknown that TV reporters didn't dig into and should have, because I think the story would discover a much more relaxed time.

But if one wasn't involved, I'm saying it took faith on behalf of the administration to assume responsibility for risk in backing this project, whether consciously considered or not. And there are risks with electrical projects beyond the computers, namely things catching on fire. What were the safeguards here? What if a logic error burned out a fan? What if someone hesitated to use the radios during a regular comm window out of habit and there was a medical emergency?

Faith here was well-founded because obviously nothing burned down and no one died. But who today would accept that risk without going to a licensed professional?

>Rhetorical question: were you a licensed CPP, CPA or an actuary when you were a temp in your secondary education unit? That's literally my point.

Well, in the real world it didn't matter at all.

The payroll sheets were then sent to the state's revenue service so that teachers would get paid. If there was an issue, the revenue service would spot it.

Occasionally there were a few slips, because this or that law regarding teacher compensation, insurance contributions etc changed 2-3 times a year. We'd just calculate the differences and issue correction invoices to compensate. At worst a teacher would get a month's salary when they shouldn't (e.g. they have stopped working, but the school didn't notify in time), and then have to give it back.

>Yes, these things can all be done by amateurs. By tinkerers. We all here know it. We've done it. You've done it. Simple devices with telemetry and some logic. Simple programs that do complex things in the aggregate. Take it to your back yard, and either one of us or a highschool student could make a traffic light cheaper than $250,000 - $500,000 per intersection (WA state estimate). But neither one of us could build, install and maintain a quarter million of them, and I think you'd be hard-pressed to mobilize an army of nerds to make it scalable.

The story is not for "a quarter million" of traffic lights, though (which would require tons of money, installations, construction work, big material orders, etc), but about an AC/heat controller for a school district.

Such things as the latter, a "tinkerer" can often do much better, faster, and more effectively than some "specialized" firm.

>But if one wasn't involved, I'm saying it took faith on behalf of the administration to assume responsibility for risk in backing this project, whether consciously considered or not. And there are risks with electrical projects beyond the computers, namely things catching on fire. What were the safeguards here? What if a logic error burned out a fan?

The student didn't install the AC/Heat units themselves.

And the school could always have a "licensed professional" come and check the student's program for correctness, for 1/10th or less of the cost of a 1.2 million dollar replacement, how about that?

BTW, I wasn't against the idea of a right-sized approach, or against your previous work. Very much in favor of both those things. Your work obviously did very well. So did this automation 30 years ago. My whole original remark is about a temporal dimension, which is why I brought up the lights to anchor them to today.

Back then, you could do things more freely with less capable and available hardware. Different environment. Concept of computers was scratching the surface of what they could do for us, and people didn't have a notion of liabilities. And yes, the student didn't install the HVAC systems, but how did tele-operated harwdware interface with it? They didn't have echo dots and knockoff power plugs back then.

Today, you have all that available hardware but can't realistically do things as freely. Suffice it to say that the environment has clammed up on all fronts for an amateur to enter an industry. In some cases rightfully so (only experts for surgeries, plumbing and wiring for me please). In others, egregiously wrong barriers. For example, commonly the first thing that happens in a public institution or agency is that the losing bidder files FOIA requests trying to litigate why their solution was passed up and by whom, including copies of correspondence between them. Imagine having to deal with that dimension.

Back to traffic lights: for something so rudimentary yet so vital, it costs millions of dollars for a handful of intersections, and they're everywhere. Nearly a prime candidate for a four raspberry pi solution, right? You'd think someone would have attempted it.

>Today, you have all that available hardware but can't realistically do things as freely. Suffice it to say that the environment has clammed up on all fronts for an amateur to enter an industry. In some cases rightfully so (only experts for surgeries, plumbing and wiring for me please). In others, egregiously wrong barriers.

I agree, and I think that's the key insight in all this. For some things the extra legislation, rules etc make sense. In many other cases, they complicate things, and can even end up delivering not just a costlier but also a less effective outcome (e.g. the 100M government website when a 2-3M one made by a small team would do better).

I agree with your statement. 49% of the costs are about cover-your-ass. 49% of the costs are about mass production something that doesn't need mass production.

The rest is the actual cost of the product.

Seems you have to much faith in licensed professionals.

I didn't take the earlier point as a hagiographic endorsement of licensed professionals, so much as a comment on the changing mindsets of the people making these hiring decisions, and how over several decades that has moved from a sort of cowboy "anything-goes" approach towards a far more risk-averse one.

Outside of interesting questions like whether amateur tinkerers and hobbyists can be as reliable as professionals are other (also interesting) questions like "what factors drive the way institutions and corporations perceive and react to risk?"

Where I lived, school could shut down for a week if the heat wasn’t working right. That has a huge financial impact.

> What remarkable faith? It's a program to start/stop AC/heat units based on temperatyre readings, not to send people to Mars.

> A talented high school student can write one today, and do it with a Rasberry Pi and for much less than $1 million (more like 5-10K).

Yes, writing a bang-bang controller would be trivial. Even some kind of PID controller wouldn't be too hard for an enterprising high schooler to try.

What makes the professional systems valuable is that they can build much more accurate models of how the building heats and cools. These models depend on the building's geometry, usage patterns, outside climate, etc., and are notoriously hard to produce. However, they can produce meaningful savings over long time periods since they ultimately use less energy due to the quality model.

Those accurate energy-saving models IMO fall apart because they keep buildings just a bit uncomfortably warm or cool, leading everyone to bring in plug-in space heaters, dehumidifiers, and fans. One other trick in the summertime when the central operations folks have decided that the building is cool enough but everyone is sweating, is to bring in a space heater and put it under the thermostat.

Ah, but it's not always done for comfort optimization.

Older electrical meters weren't all that accurate, especially for larger systems - that's true even today. They're analog as an only option of measurement due to incredible amounts of power going through them (too noisy for hall effect sensors). Large buildings are reactive loads to the grid, almost like an inductor. Anyhow, older meters picked up velocity for usage calculations.

Some A/C controllers carefully modeled how fast the power meters accelerated as an instrument, then used that information against them, throttling and ramping power use to slow the measurements down, basically causing under-metering.

Saved USPS millions a year in power bills.

Three (oh crap, closer to four) decades ago our high school minicomputer (DG Nova 2) handled all the grade reporting, class and athletics schedules, and alumni development mailings — all programmed and operated by a few students, in BASIC no less. It was a rare and invaluable experience to be essentially a trusted professional at that age.

I worked for my local school district (second largest one in Georgia) and wrote production software while in high school. Much of it is still in use. That was only two years ago.

Every company and government try to build wall of laws, standards, compliance, safety etc to save their ass and also so that they can loot it from inside.

> so that they can loot it from inside.

That's one way to view it, another point of view would be that all those people whose jobs we're automating away still get to work somewhere doing something.

They should get their students to build the replacement.

And not pay them 1.5-2 million [minus hardware], I wager.

How about 20 raspberry pis connected to the Internet and pay them 2 thousand?

And then explain why their heater hacked the entire network, or helped DDoS the governor's site during an election? Probably not the best idea to hook things like this up to the internet.

My guess is that the cost is mostly at the edge (needing to update the thermostats, control systems, communications systems and other HVAC equipment at the 19 campuses) not the software.

They should just get the same guy to redo it with a Pi or a second-hand laptop.

This would shit the bed in less than a year. Pi will corrupt the sd card after a few ungraceful shut downs.

This is a good reason to USB boot a Pi (yes, they’ve supported this for ages now) - no one should SD card boot a Pi in a production style environment, given the well documented card corruption issues.

Read only file systems on the SD boot volume are another solution, but this can cause other headaches (obviously) or may not be appropriate for the software you intend to run.

I have a RPi connected to my sprinkler solenoid valves via an OpenSprinklerPi board. It’s running the SIP [1] controller and a custom garage door plugin [2] I wrote.

It’s been running 24/7 in my garage since 2014. YMMV I guess?

[1] https://github.com/Dan-in-CA/SIP [2] https://github.com/andersix/sip_garage_plugin

Run an Amiga emulator on it, never shut down! And because it's cheap, run that three times, and have an emulated gameboy sound the alarm if one of the three stops responding, or delivers a different answer than the other two.

Getting it all into a software state that can easily be transferred to "something that runs Linux and this emulator that requires next to nothing" certainly seems sensible at any rate.

Have been running a Pi 24/7 for quite some time now with zero corruption.

Samsung EVO SD card, have multiple times rebooted by pulling the power (which is not ideal) because of unrelated issues that were due to some OS problems (SSH doesn't respond, etc) without a problem, but haven't had to do that in a long while after changing the OS and getting NIC stuff set up properly.

I have seen that the majority of SD corruption that happens tends to be in situations where Pis are being run under-powered off of a USB hub or something similar instead of a wall-plug.

I believe with a decent-quality SD card, and properly powering the Pi, the chances of SD corruption are relatively low. That said, I would prefer a USB3, SATA, NVME, or even eMMC interface, but the Pi has worked remarkably well for me. USB2 booting the Pi is always a backup option if my luck takes a turn for the worse

I have a PI in an interactive art installation that gets power cycled pretty freaking often, and so far the card has held up.

It is something I worry about though.

Can you just duplicate the card and use that image as a backup? I’ve stashed a few away like this but pcdoodle’s suggested solution sounds a lot more elegant.

This is actually more difficult than you’d expect in some ways. The vast majority of card cloning guides will advise you to use the ‘dd’ command line utility, which makes an exact replica of the card, including the free space.

Unfortunately not all SD cards, even if advertised as the same capacity, are exactly the same size. If your replacement card is just 1 byte smaller your dd clone won’t restore - the “free” space has to fit into the target card as well.

Long story short - most popular methods of cloning microSD cards for the Pi only ensure the ability to restore to a larger SD card, not necessarily one of the same advertized size.

For sure there are workarounds, but it’s not as straightforward as you might assume. Personally I’m much more a fan of other tools such as rsync or version control etc for cloning data to and from Pi projects.

The better answer is just to USB boot the Pi anyway - they’ve supported this for a while now, no card corruption issues to mitigate.

Thanks for this. I need to change what I’m doing.

rsyncing the entire root file tree should be good enough.


Read only file system guides are out there. This makes it 90% more reliable.

Yeah, probably.

Right. I wonder what this Amgia can do what a Raspberry Pi or even ESP8266 can't? Bit banging a simple maintenance radio / 1200 baud protocol should not be that hard?

in the decades of accumulated parts lying in the building they could probably make a rendering farm

There might be some survivorship bias at work here. Lots of things were programmed on early microcomputers. It seemed easy but control systems can harbor unexpected bugs that are hard to diagnose. The ones that failed were taken out of service and forgotten about.

I built the burglar alarm system for my school, 28 years ago while in 12th grade. All TTL circuitry. That portion of the building was remodeled, so it was torn out after a few years, but I’m guessing the replacement cost for a commercial system was over $10k.

As is always the case, the replacement isn't simply a system doing an identical job on modern hardware. Instead they spec'd out a whole new system with new onsite controllers, bidirectional communications, integration with new systems, etc.

As other people have said, the money isn't just going towards replacing the Amiga. The school system wants to upgrade to more modern HVAC systems, which is good in the long run as they'll be more energy efficient and probably more effective.

The comparison to a modern laptop is interesting, but a more apt comparison would probably be to a modern desktop, which would probably be pretty easy to keep running for more than 4-5 years.

(The Amiga does have a bunch of outdated stuff in it, but the circuit board is quite large, with mostly standard-sized ICs, and other Amigas can typically be cannibalized for components. The repair options for a modern laptop on the other hand seem to be rather limited: everything's tiny, it's machine-assembled, there's five chips on the entire board and each one has 1100 pins. If something goes wrong, you need to replace all of it.)

> The comparison to a modern laptop is interesting...

Nah, my ~8 year old laptop was still trying to process all the js to render their site even after I finished reading the article and hit the back button -- that's probably the standard they're holding up here...

But, really, the only problems I ever have with this old lappy is the occasional bug that slips through the Fedora testing process and a battery that really should be replaced.

My 8 year old laptop has Quad 2Ghz Processors and 16GB ram and a 500GB SSD. It's running ubuntu on a swing arm wall mount in my garage over my electronics station next to the lathe and below the lexan protected 4k tv. It' works great in that capacity and I don't see it dying any time soon.

8 Years ago was 2010. My replacement laptop is basically 2x the power of the old one, and that's really only for short bursts due to thermal issues. Actually the one in the garage likely is better for large parts of the year because it's cold in the garage.

The comparison is definitely for the wow-factor and not accuracy, but I dont know why they would do this if their readers are geeks.

My mid-2011 MacBook Air is still going strong.

SSDs changed everything. What’s to wear out other than fan bearings?

Probably nothing - but when it does go pop, you're going to open it up, and there's the world's tiniest circuit board, with 100 tiny little capacitors, and if you're old enough to remember the Amiga then they are all too small for your eyes to even see. There are 3 chips, and each chip has 700 pins, and each pin is ~0.5mm from the next. What is the difference between your laptop, model 344 revision 001, and another laptop, model 344, revision 002? - oh dear, the answer is: everything. They redesigned the whole thing. Still, at least you didn't get revision 003, which is not only entirely different again but also coated in epoxy resin!

Meanwhile, your Amiga has this enormous motherboard that's full of DIP-size ICs, many of them socketed, and even with your schoolboy soldering you can extract the ones that ain't. And it almost cetainly doesn't matter if you're hoping to get their replacements from an Amiga that's completely different, because Commodore just didn't have the money to make N different versions of their chips, even assuming you're trying to replace the custom ones in the first place.

Or was it just the disk drive that fucked up, or one of the power supply capacitors, or something like that? - well, why didn't you say! No problem. Plenty of those about!

P.S.: but, all that said: what I was thinking about, when it comes to a modern desktop, is that you'd just replace parts as much as possible, repairing things as required, then when it finally dies just buy another one and restore from your last backup. But while bench repair is more of an option with a desktop than a laptop, in either case you probalby wouldn't actually bother, and you'd just throw it away and buy a new one at the first sign of trouble. So in fact, maybe it doesn't make much of a difference overall.

For the record, my 2nd computer was an Amiga 500. Much loved.

(First was the mighty Sinclair Spectrum+. Whywhywhywhywhywhywhy did I sell that thing.)

| “What is the difference between your laptop, model 344 revision 001, and another laptop, model 344, revision 002?”

This is one of the things I despise about the Windows world. Say you have an HP EliteBook 9460m. Sounds like quite a specific model number. You want the graphics drivers. You go to HP.com, navigate Support, plug in your model number ... and are given the option of the Intel or the NVIDIA drivers.

What the hell? Do HP not know which one they put in this machine? Was it just a crap-shoot at the factory? That’s bonkers, in my book.

Is it really Intel or Nvidia? Is it not Intel and Nvidia? Many laptops come with both and can switch between both depending on whether you need a fast GPU or energy saving.

I do wonder how often they have to have someone squeak the chips on the Amiga.

SSDs do have a finite lifespan due to limited number of writes they can do before cells can't be rewritten.

Oh, of course. But it’s many times the average spinning-rust laptop hard drive lifespan (for your average user).

Not necessarily. There was a story just the other day about how someone's SSDs at their business were failing for unknown reasons without the proper warnings. I must've read it on another device, as I can't find it in my history. I believe I saw it on HN.

Not necessarily, no. But on the average, definitely yes.

i just retired a 10 year old desktop, and not because it would have stopped working, but because i couldn't get a RAM upgrade for it. i gave it to a schools hackerspace where it will hopefully do a few more years of service.

Discussed here before in 2015: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=9705830

and the original source of both the engadget and geek articles: https://www.woodtv.com/news/grand-rapids/1980s-computer-cont...

"It’ll cost about $1.5 to 2 million to replace the Amiga"

I'm doing the job for 1/4 of that money, just pay me economy class trip and a motel.

Seriously, 1.5 to 2 million dollars? The Amiga, although it was an amazing piece of hardware (I owned 500, 600, 2000, and 4000), was far from being certified for any industrial use, so I wouldn't expect any extra spending in that context. Even using the industry standard for the job (PLCs) would be cheaper let alone using smaller single board computers (no, I'm not referring to Arduino or Raspberry PI, there are rugged solutions well below $500) and doing all development in house. Do I miss something or they overextimated that spending by at least one order of magnitude?

This actually should have been the headline, not the fact that a school is still using some old technology. My guess is that an "approved vendor" has sold them on a ridiculously overpriced system and that 90%+ of that cost would go straight to the vendor's bottom line. The hard part there is becoming an approved vendor. There are companies that do nothing other than go around to various county/state agencies and get these approvals. Then they cozy up to every purchase decision maker at every government entity they can get to within the jurisdictions in which they have been approved, and essentially just drop ship drastically overpriced products to them. It's great work if you can get it.

I wouldn't be surprised if the new system has some features billed as saving tens of thousand dollars a year. That's entirely possible. My tiny little college made winter break 2 weeks longer and saved 200k a year.

saved on what? heating?

in austria, decades ago they invented winter holidays to save on heating for a week. then they found out that it cost them more to reheat the building after that week, so now they just keep the empty buildings heated.

There's a a point at which the off-time is long enough that the cost savings are more than the price to reheat the building. Making winter break two weeks longer is likely to cross that threshold.

that makes sense. damn! if only the policymakers had realized that, we could have had more vacation.

How many fully competent people can execute on this less-expensive plan, and do it correctly? How many of those are motivated to do this project? How many of those carry the necessary certifications to work on the industrial parts of the system? How many of those are 'qualified' to bid on the job?

Something I don't understand is how come can it cost so much to relace an old Amiga to control AC? What about a regular PC with some smart software? Is this the cost of other hardware that is so expensive?

It reads like the current system is probably using AX.25 wireless packet radio to communicate with the other schools. I suspect this type of use case with amateur radio is, at best, a grey area in terms of regulatory compliance. The replacement still shouldn't cost as much, but I'll bet it's more than just replacing the PC. It's also coming up with some kind of cross-school network, if one doesn't already exist. And compliance with the inevitable mountain of government requirements.

Another comment mentioned this already, but a single low end PLC for the central control unit (such as https://www.automationdirect.com/adc/overview/catalog/progra... ) plus RDCs at each building would cost under $5000 easily, all while being in compliance with any standards governing such equipment.

I like Amiga, but you could probably do whatever that machine is doing with some Arduino-class hardware these days. I don't think the challenges are technical in nature.

Edit: And as the comment thread in the article explains they're probably renovating the whole HVAC system, not just replacing that single Amiga.

My guess is that it doesn’t, that’s the cost of the new computer system and replacing parts of the old AC.

It doesn't. The same type of solution could be provided today with a low cost PC/embedded system with a trivial amount of specialized hardware. The cost for a modern version of what they had (solving any major issues the old system had) would be a fraction of the cost and time the original took. But no business owner in their right mind wants to be stuck selling that: low margin, virtually no growth. What they replaced it with is something completely different than what they had.

There are only a few vendors and if you get it wrong the school can end up with a $3000 bill for power over the usual charges. The actual programming and hardware is incredibly simple.

Looks like the cure is a lot more expensive than having the disease would be.

Probably because it's a public school, so it has to go through a tender process with an absurd number of requirements and paperwork. That'll 10x the cost because of the extra paperwork.

Why not simply put the software onto a PC? All it would need is a Windows license and a Cloanto License (https://www.amigaforever.com/) to run the emulation? WinUAE has been stable for years now and the ease with which the system could be automated should make up for any smaller issues encountered in terms of hardware interop.

Likely due to the 1200 baud modem used having some traits that aren’t easily handled and would require some very specialized code to handle. Great, now you have two pieces of esoteric code that need to be supported. They likely have a comfort level in repairing the physical Amiga that they wouldn’t have on staff with an emulation system.

Sounds like AX.25 packet radio. So probably possible to replace with more modern hardware. But yeah, a little more than a typical public school building maintenance staff probably wants to deal with.

Why not leave it as is?

If it's not broken, don't fix it.

They are going to spend $2 millions breaking something that works. And that's if they are lucky and it doesn't go over budget.

A modern system is likely to be more efficient and offer finer-grained control that is better matched to heat and AC demand. Across 19 buildings, that will add up to significant energy (and thus $) savings over time.

The same reasons that something like a Nest thermostat can save you money at home.

> The same reasons that something like a Nest thermostat can save you money at home.

What are the odds that the new system will save them > $1M over its life?

Assuming a 30 year lifespan and 19 buildings, 1 mio. $ breaks down to 1750$ per building per year. That seems entirely achievable to me.

that's where the consultants that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars come in, negating any cost savings should the consultants find that it would save them money

It's going to break at some point, so you can either plan for that and take a little bit of time to analyse the current setup and design something that could run for another 30 years ... or wait until it breaks and then build a new system

Do you really think it will cost 2 million when it breaks?

It has worked 30 years so Bayes says it is likely to keep working.

Where did I say that?

I’d be very impressed and delighted to see this running in 30 years time ... but realistically there’s vanishingly small chance the hardware would last that long without some sort of failure. For now they’ve said they were able to scrounge replacements for broken parts, but that cannot last

This. Complicated systems built in a hurry without proper planning cause so much misery and cost more.

It's also in Grand Rapids Michigan. Murphys law says this breaks at 2am on January 1 when it's -15 outside. No one is available to fix, and pipes start freezing causing millions more in damage.

I imagine it is something like a new building, or perhaps the original heating system being replaced.

The article tells us that various pieces of it have broken, already.

Exactly. No need to invest in a new equipment: just replace the Amiga by a cheap PC (or even a Raspberry Pi!) and run everything in UAE (you don't even need a Windows license).

>The original system was programmed by a high school student in the ’80s, and he’s the only one who knows how to fix software glitches.

This is the best part of the article. I remember a fellow student in 1995 being asked to make the website for our whole school board. He had played around with some WYSIWYG program back then and excelled.

That would be great. Try keeping a MS-DOS computer with a ‘special’ controller board up for the same length of time. No putting the card in a newer computer since timing is a thing. Boilers are a pain. I guess we will get rid of it finally in a couple of years.

Why are you still using MS-DOG, of all things, for something that could nowadays be easily done by an Arduino? I mean, at least the Amiga was designed with some worthwhile soft-realtime properties, due to its nature as the first mass-marketed multimedia computer. But an IBM-compatible PC, with a bespoke controller board? Really?

Why are you still using MS-DOG

If you can’t figure that out for yourself, the good news is that there’s still plenty to learn about this industry (and “industry” in general), and you’re unlikely to get bored. In the meantime, something something Chesterton’s Fence.

Well, there is no option to change to an Arduino. If you have no other way to handle it and no access to any documentation to program something else then you keep what you have running until you buy a replacement.

I only skimmed the article but I didn't see anything about the local systems that receive the commands? Or really why they need computerised control rather than local controllers.

There must be off-the-shelf components to plugin in to replace the on-site controllers that can be controlled remotely?

Also, what's the chance the modem just connects over POTS to another modem with no controls on authorisation?

Things like this highlight to me how insanely underpaid system engineers, hardware engineers and software engineers are on a net present value basis.

You get paid based on some short future time window perception of the value your labor is adding. When really random people were coming to work some random Tuesday adding a few lines of code, documenting something so that someone else a few years later could add robustness or change a capability a few years later, etc., and it adds up to something that gets the job done for 30 years.

It’s a marvel.

I’ve worked on various projects that resembled this in some ways, primarly a defense research system for simulating aircraft properties and susceptibility to threats, built in the 80s and 90s in C, and still being constantly used for top level intelligence briefings in the 2000s.

To say that the engineers who made the foundational system to have a prayer of living for 20+ years were underpaid relative to the value they created is just a ludicrous understatement.

The most surprising part for me is that they have AC at all. (at least some) Schools in MA don’t and I bet it gets hotter than Grand Rapids.

West Michigan native here. A big reason why the schools have AC is the humidity in the summer. Since we are right next to Lake Michigan.

Exactly. No primary or secondary schools I ever went to had A/C, this is in the Northeast. I recall some unpleasant days at 90+ degrees with 90%+ humidity, but it's just the way it was.

Why does this need to be centralised like this? Why not a normal consumer thermostat or manual control in each building?

HVAC is much cheaper centralized. Things like off peak in floor heating are just the start of optimizations that can be done. Heck, even having one building on something else leads to pain.

But if it's on something else presumably it's because the people working in that building have decided that's the temperature they need to be comfortable. Should trust people in the locations to be sensible.

You overestimate the average ability of the office worker to know how the system works. Getting the temperature comfortable for a group of people is sometimes problematic and allowing one person to make others uncomfortable is not a happy thing. Plus, the central controls tends to keeps things even and extends the life of equipment. Cost is an issue and people changing temperature everywhere sends costs up.

If you don't trust people to even run a thermostat then perhaps you shouldn't hire them to work for you!

Oh dear Lord. Thermostats in big buildings with complicated airflows with big open spaces are hard. People don't get how long it takes to heat or cool air. This is not your home system. Its basically saying I can drive a SMART car with an automatic transmission so I should be able to drive an 18 wheeler hauling a airfoil for a wind turbine.

I trust individuals have the ability mash buttons or turn knobs on a thermostat to suit their preferences. I don't trust that they have the ability or interest to understand how that changes the overall efficiency of the HVAC system or how it impacts coworkers. I definitely don't think it's even appropriate for them to have to have those considerations in mind: unless they're on the facilities team it's likely their value is in doing other kinds of work.

One cold winter Monday morning in 8th grade, my first-period class had to meet in the hallway outside the classroom.

The reason? It was about 90°F (32°C) in the classroom.

On the previous Friday, one of the teachers turned the thermostat dial up as far as it would go. Presumably they intended to turn it down later but forgot.

Any office I've worked in with at least three people will inevitably end up with the heat running at 75 degrees over Christmas break for two weeks while nobody's there.

Not only that but you can still program todays thermostats with the optimizations/rules that you would in the central system anyway. Program it once, set it and forget it, and of course, give maintenance staff manual access as well.

Institutions like to exercise strict central control over setpoints to manage energy costs. Remote access also saves a lot of time and driving for the handful of maintenance staff who manage dozens of sites.

It probably made sense back then, but you’re right this does not need to be centralized anymore.

"It’ll cost about $1.5 to 2 million to replace the Amiga"


No, more likely that figure is for a variety of pieces that comprise the WHOLE environmental control system. Across NINETEEN schools, not just one. Each of which might have dozens of different HVAC zones and potentially more than one HVAC plant.

Really, is reading comprehension that difficult?

Or they could just keep buying Amigas until they consume the entire market. 2 million is an insane amount.

The problem isn't just the parts availability but that the current system is susceptible to interference from their radio intercoms.

> The frequency used by the archaic communication system overlaps with maintenance works’ radios, which can sometimes cause interference with the system. When that happens, everyone has to turn off their walkie talkies for 15 or 20 minutes.

Right, so the $2MM replacement cost will probably pay for itself in fairly short order just with the productivity improvements that will come from not having issues like this anymore. Staff time is really expensive!

Not to mention liability in case there's some kind of emergency (fire, etc) that they can't respond to effectively.

> Staff time is really expensive!

It’s a school. Unfortunately it’s not particularly expensive.

They probably loaded the levy request with a bunch semi-related equipment upgrades on top of the central AC controller, kind of like how bills in Congress get tons of extra requests tacked on to the main request. Since they've been running the controller so long without significant changes, their HVAC systems are probably just as old if not older than the centralized controller that's already very obsolete.

The U2 spy plane, quite an engineering marvel, was about a million bucks to buy.

Yes I know the fed reserve's been steadily devaluating the dollar (and some standard inflation), but I think it's still telling.

U2 spy plane as originally designed is actually really quite simple. They keep updating the equipment inside, but the aircraft would be easy to replace. It has a minimal payload which allows for very high altitudes. Replacing it for under 10 million unit cost the USD equivalent in 1955 money seems very reasonable.

PS: The F-22 for example along with a huge swath of military aircraft can also fly over 65,000 feet. But, rather than just carry a camera they also need to have weapon systems etc.

Are you sure? A more-reasonable comparison would be the Global Hawk, which is the U2's successor, and costs (220,000,000.

I agree a 10 million seems reasonable today. That was the point.

Global Hawk does 34 hours without refueling. That's well beyond the U2's performance and the core issue. The military wants to push the envelope on what's possible which get's expensive.

Also, be careful comparing just the name. Today's U2 were built in the 1980s and are about 40% larger than the original design. They also include a lot more electronics where the orional needed to land and get film developed.

Yea they garnered a lot differences over the years. Even different engines, cockpits became partially pressurized, etc. But that doesn't mean the comparison between what could be built in the 1950s and today is invalid.

And then of course, the GH is an unmanned drone, with a little lower ceiling, etc. These would reduce costs. Obviously it's a far-more advanced project, but it's also had outrageous cost overruns.

I think it's crazy when you think one of our military's highest-performing planes, even if not as exotic as an SR71, has some kind of reasonable cost comparison to an air conditioning service that a high schooler built in their spare time. Remember, a lot of that inflation is devaluation (this is debated) from Fed printing money and playing games with Wall St, but not all of it.

> The original system was programmed by a high school student in the ’80s, and he’s the only one who knows how to fix software glitches. Luckily, he still lives in the area...

> It’ll cost about $1.5 to 2 million to replace the Amiga...

Hope this "kid" is getting paid for his work.

Wouldn't Windows 10 IoT on a raspberry pi hooked up to the internet work as an efficient replacement instead of the $2M? AFAIK, Windows claims to handle all the security things for you so a student developer making this project doesn't have to.

Why exactly did the schools have to be networked together in the first place?

They don't share boilers or anything I'm guessing.

Given that the Amiga supposedly replaced a refrigerator sized computer, probably to avoid buying 18 more. If it's all controlled by radio anyway, what's the point in decentralizing?

Couldn't they replace it with a laptop running UAE?

"1200-bit modem". Good job, geek.com, I'm sure the rest of your breathless reporting is just as accurate.

That is a direct quotation of the person cited, note.

"The original system was programmed by a high school student in the ’80s, and he’s the only one who knows how to fix software glitches. "

Wow ... That is beyond irresponsible ...

Pretty standard, I think. I know of lots of software running business critical functions that are unmaintainable for want of lost knowledge.

Maybe, but still irresponsible.

The more you know about embedded and IoT, the worse you'll sleep.

Do you want to be right, or do you prefer to be happy?

Truer words than that are seldom uttered.

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