Computer & Telecommunication Systems
Martin Marietta Energy Systems
P.O. Box 2009, Bldg 9103
Oak Ridge, TN 37831-8160 USA
v: (615) 574-4620
f: (615) 574-3887
Other (there is some possibility of categorizing as “research, government”, but there was no real research project directly affected)
Innovative or improved ways of doing things; Leverage of public funding
The Case of the Saved System Upgrade
At the Department of Energy’s Y-12 Plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, system manager Arnold Pomerance was finishing the tedious task of upgrading the RSX operating system on a DEC PDP-11 computer. New peripheral devices had arrived, intended to extend the useful life of the aging machine, and a new version of RSX was required to support them.
In the final step of the upgrade, Arnold started a job to re-compile the computer’s application software. Because these programs are written in the RATFIV language, a structured variant of FORTRAN, the first step in the job was to run the RATFIV preprocessor. This public-domain utility reads the structured RATFIV code and converts it to standard FORTRAN for subsequent compilation. But, now, to Arnold’s annoyance, the RATFIV preprocessor refused to run under the new version of RSX.
Now, the RATFIV preprocessor is itself written in FORTRAN, and the new RSX FORTRAN compiler was working fine. The upgrade was just going to take an extra step, to re-compile and reinstall the preprocessor. But when Arnold went to get the source code for RATFIV, he found that the disk pack on which it had been stored years earlier had become unreadable.
Arnold searched through the disks and tapes he had at hand. No RATFIV source. Queries to the plant tape library turned up no other local archive. With increasing concern, Arnold telephoned colleagues at other locations in Oak Ridge and Knoxville, none of whom still had a copy of the 10-year-old package. The RSX upgrade was in serious danger of being derailed.
News of the problem soon reached Arnold’s co-workers Richard Shuford and John Farmer. In educational settings, Richard and John had learned many uses of the NSF Internet, and they decided that the network offered the fastest chance of getting the RATFIV source code.
John began looking for RATFIV in the repositories of freely available software that are publicly accessible through the Internet, using the “archie” file-locating service and conducting “anonymous FTP” directory searches. At the same time, Richard posted a call for help to the members of the Info-PDP11 mailing list. This electronic forum is operated by the Transarc Corporation of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, and it allows PDP-11 experts around the world to hold discussions via the Internet.
Two days later, the answer came: Donald Arrowsmith, a system manager at the Naval Air Warfare Center in Trenton, New Jersey, replied to Richard’s Info-PDP11 posting by electronic mail. He had the RATFIV source on his PDP-11/70, and he volunteered to immediately transmit the files over the Internet, using the FTP file-transfer protocol.
Because the Y-12 PDP-11 system has sensitive contents and is not connected to the Internet, it took a day to make arrangements for the transfer to occur to a network-connected machine. However, even with this complication, on the afternoon of the third day after sending the call for help, Richard had gotten the RATFIV source code downloaded onto a magnetic tape, ready for transfer to the waiting PDP-11. Arnold’s upgrade was back on track, and the new peripherals could be installed.
In this case, use of the Internet saved time and money by allowing a scarce resource to be identified, located, and shared between two federal- governmental units that would be otherwise unaware of each other’s needs and abilities.