Mi Amiga: One Michigan School District's Three-Decades-Old Hero Computer That Still Manages HVAC Today

from the salute dept

As I’m sure I’ve mentioned in the past, I’ve worked most of my professional life in the tech industry, specifically working for a managed services consultant in Chicago. One of the things we do is advise our clients on hardware rotations. Client machines, like desktops and laptops for instance, are typically recommended on a four to five year rotation. Because, let’s face it, a five year old computer is either functionally worthless or is probably hanging onto a single strand of twisted copper before crapping out entirely, amirite?

Please don’t send this post to my customers. Why? Well, because this is the story of the Grand Rapids Public School System in Michigan and the Commodore Amiga, originally bought during the Reagan administration, that is still running the schools’ heating and air conditioning today.

The Commodore Amiga was new to GRPS in the early 1980s and it has been working tirelessly ever since. GRPS Maintenance Supervisor Tim Hopkins said that the computer was purchased with money from an energy bond in the 1980s. It replaced a computer that was “about the size of a refrigerator.” The computer is responsible for turning the heat and the air conditioners on and off for 19 school buildings.

Great. My HP laptop from six years ago has the keys falling off the keyboard and I’m pretty sure the fans inside the chassis have had their fins whisked down to tiny little fan-nubs, but this beast from the cold war times is still making sure little Johnny doesn’t get sweaty during his lunch period. What’s insane about all of this is the intricacy with which the whole thing manages to work. The computer controls the boilers, fans and pumps, while also monitoring temperatures within the schools… and it was programmed by a local high school student in the 80’s. Not only that, but because the Amiga is a thing that belongs in a museum somewhere, whenever the school district needs help with the machine they still go back to that very same “programmer” who is all grown up now and happens to still live in the area. I mean, just listen to this.

“It’s a very unique product. It operates on a 1200-bit modem,” said Hopkins. “How it runs, the software that it’s running, is unique to Commodore.”

Hopkins said the system runs on a radio frequency that sends a signal to school buildings, which reply within a matter of seconds with the status of each building. The only problem is that the computer operates on the same frequency as some of the walkie-talkies used by the maintenance department.

“Because they share the same frequency as our maintenance communications radios and operations maintenance radios — it depends on what we’re doing — yes, they do interfere,” Hopkins said.

If that happens, “we have to clear the radio and get everyone off of it for up to 15 minutes.”

The school had received funds to address infrastructure problems from something called the “Warm Safe and Dry” bond in 2011, which seems like it was named specifically to get the schools’ HVAC systems up to date. But GRPS was all, “eh, fuck it, this thing’s still running like a champ, so let’s put our ancient computer down the priority list.” And it looks like it was the right decision. The Amiga runs day and night to this day, with only some minor inconveniences and replacement parts getting in the way of saying this thing is working flawlessly.

The article notes that the locals there are considering a new $175 million bond proposal that would free up money for the school system to replace the Amiga with a modern system that would cost something like $2 million or so. If it passes, Hopkins is expecting it to be a high priority, which will result in the sad day when we have to retire the old girl and put her out to pasture. In the meantime, this machine deserves some kind of Ironman award. We salute you, Commodore!

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Comments on “Mi Amiga: One Michigan School District's Three-Decades-Old Hero Computer That Still Manages HVAC Today”

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58 Comments
GreatGreenGeek says:

Re: $2 million to replace it

Chances are not only are they replacing the computer, but they’re also replacing many of the control components that have been in place, too. I do lots of work for schools, so things like:

– Radiator control valves
– Classroom thermostats
– Damper actuators (and possibly the dampers themselves if not well maintained)
– Temperature sensors
– Duct static pressure sensors
– Packaged AC controllers
– Network JACE boxes
– variable frequency drive gateways (and maybe VFDs themselves)
– boiler controls
– boiler stack dampers
– motor start/stop controls

That adds up. Generally, schools do these upgrades for energy efficiency purposes, so there are also some other capital investments (like a new boilers). Generally, for a reasonably sized single school, a whole new HVAC control system can run between $250k (elementary) to $1M+ (high school).

Anonymous Coward says:

1200 bit dial-up modem? What are they going to do when POTS dissappears in a few years. There are already places now where POTS is not avialable, even here in one part of Sacramento.

If they switch to a modern PC, they will have to connect through the LAN, since virtually every computer made now cannot use a dial-up modem.

Christopher (profile) says:

Re: What?

“If they switch to a modern PC, they will have to connect through the LAN, since virtually every computer made now cannot use a dial-up modem.”

Why not? Virtually every computer I’ve seen over the past 20 years either has a modem card, modem built in, or USB capabilities which then allows for a modem. So, please, elaborate specifically.

-C

Rekrul says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Re:

I don’t know what to do with ’em. Know of anywhere that would recycle or utilize them?

Absolutely! There’s still a lot of Amiga users around who will gladly buy them from you for a fair price.

Go to;

http://www.lemonamiga.com

Go to the forums and post them in the Supermarket forum.

If you’re not interested in selling them and just want to get rid of them, offer them for the cost of postage and I guarantee you’ll find someone who will gladly take them.

If it’s an old, non-Intel computer, I guarantee that there are collectors who would love to add it to their collection. I’d love to take one of them, but I’m kind of short on money at the moment. Still, I’d rather see them go to other Amiga enthusiasts than for you to junk/recycle them.

MrTroy (profile) says:

They don't make 'em like they used to

This is very impressive; I’m not sure how likely a commodity computer made today is to even last thirty years. Even enterprise systems aren’t made with the kind of tolerances to last that long.

The more dense fabrication technologies and faster clock speeds means that parts wear faster, and break earlier. It looks like Seagate’s Barracuda ES.2 Near-Line Serial ATA drive is 80% likely to survive 30 years without a failure (http://knowledge.seagate.com/articles/en_US/FAQ/174791en?language=en_US), but a quick search didn’t yield anything immediately useful for RAM or other components.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: They don't make 'em like they used to

If you’re referring to hard drives, then they never made them like that.

I remember a saying from PC Magazine from around 1990, plus or minus a few years: “Hard drives used to be expensive and unreliable, but that’s changed: now they’re inexpensive and unreliable”.

Stephen says:

Re: Re: They don't make 'em like they used to

“Hard drives used to be expensive and unreliable, but that’s changed: now they’re inexpensive and unreliable”

That depends on the kind of hard drive you’re talking about. I used to work as an IT tech at an educational institution. Back in the mid-1990s when the Internet was first starting up the department I worked for bought a file server from Apple with a 1GB hard drive for email and the like. That drive ran 24/7 without any hardware problems for over a decade.

In contrast, when the department had to buy a second drive for that server (a 4 GB one, IIRC) for that same server, rather than buying a server-rated hard drive (which would have been fairly expensive) they chose to save money and buy a non-server rated model instead.

That drive failed within about twelve months, forcing the powers-that-be to go out and buy another. Again they chose to buy a non-server rated model.

It too barely lasted twelve months before suffering a hardware failure. This time they learnt their lesson and bought a server-rated drive, one which lasted until they finally retired the machine harlf a decade or more later.

Moral of the story: not all hard drives are equal. You get what you pay for.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Re: Apple ... drive ran 24/7 without any hardware problems for over a decade.

Apple never made hard drives.

Hard drives have a failure rate of maybe 3-6% per year. So yes, there is a better-than-50-50 chance that a drive will last for 10 years.

I had one of the first Mac II machines in 1987. That batch of drives had a known “stiction” tendency, which meant that, one day, you would turn the machine on, and the drive wouldn’t spin up. Mine failed with just a month to go on the warranty.

John Fenderson (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 Apple ... drive ran 24/7 without any hardware problems for over a decade.

“Hard drives have a failure rate of maybe 3-6% per year.”

Also, if your hard drive is going to fail, it’s overwhelmingly likely that it will happen in the first 6 to 12 months of use. If your hard drive survives that initial period, the odds are very good that it will live for decades (with the usual caveats: I’m assuming that you don’t abuse it, how heavily the drive is used affects lifespan, and I’m talking about hard drives that don’t have design problems).

In my 30 years or so as a developer, I’ve only had a single hard drive failure. Every drive I’ve replaced, I’ve done so because I needed a bigger drive. I have two drives on a server right now that I bought 20 years ago, and they’re still working flawlessly.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Re:3 n my 30 years or so as a developer, I've only had a single hard drive failure

In my 30-year career, I have seen lots of hard drive failures, both in my own gear and in my clients’. That’s why I think it’s a really good idea to run regular badblocks scans to try to pick up problems before actual data is affected.

Lawrence D’Oliveiro says:

Re: Re: Re: non-server rated model instead.

Studies of hundreds of thousands of hard drive failures show no significant difference in reliability between “enterprise” (which I presume is what you mean by “server-rated”) and “consumer” drives. Though there is definitely a wide gulf in price.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:2 non-server rated model instead.

“Back in the day” 🙂 we used to purchase “rated” (which eventually was renamed “server grade”) Maxtor XT1140 drives at a tremendous premium. The only difference between them and the “consumer” model was that Maxtor guaranteed zero bad blocks (MFM drives, couldn’t map bad blocks to the inner spindle unused space).

They also added a zero to the MTBF on the drives. As another person pointed out, when one failed it was usually the drive electronics, not the platters or the motors.

spodula (profile) says:

age

Its not too surprising it survived.
While disk drives and fans items wear out, Mostly i’ve found with pre-1990’s machines that if they survive the first year, they will keep going indefinitely, caps allowing.

Mainly because they tended to be vastly over-engineered and the components weren’t under nearly as much thermal stress as modern computers.

Electrolytic Caps drying out are an issue, but as long as you know about it, and change them after about 20 years or so, It will probably be giving someone joy in another 20 years.

Bamboo Harvester (profile) says:

Not all that surprising

There’s a LOT of equipment out there still running from the same period. You just don’t usually hear about it.

The airwing controls on the Space Shuttles are controlled by a Tandy Color Computer 3 motherboard, running OS-9. Yeah, the $400 CoCo3 game machine from 1986 or so is what brought those Shuttles in to land safely.

Groaker (profile) says:

I wrote a system that was still running after three decades (ca 1980,) and for all I know may be celebrating its 35th bday. It did everything the enduser wanted, was flexible, and was built to feed SAS (Statistical Analysis System) as well as produce the reports and graphs needed. The last I heard the only difficult was in getting parts and 5 1/4″ diskettes.

There were mainframe systems built in the ’60s 1999 whose only problem was that they had to undergo Y2K remediation.

The cost of replacing the software just to keep up with the hardware would be incredible, would stall progress where needed, and would stultify programmer analysts. It is far more cost efficient to write emulators so the old software will run.

This is true for a lot of fields as well as computing. My father told me that many locomotive lathes that had been built during the civil war were still running. These things were so big that a man could had to stand in the lathe pan to adjust the machine.

Why replace something that is working well when that capital can be spent on something worth improving. And yes, there are Amiga OS emulators so that even if the hardware can’t be directly replaced, an Amiga environment can be substituted to run the old software.

Andrew (profile) says:

My wife’s using a 5yo laptop for work. No issues. Last week I got a new PC, it’s my 3rd since Jan 2000 (and it’s a refurb, just like the last one in Feb 2009). And I have an emergency win7 laptop, that was made in 2005 (dell e1705) that’s mainly used as a media hub (it has firewire and a line-in, in a laptop)

And in the mid-90s, I ran all the records of my fathers business on a dragon32 (what the TRS-80 coco was based on) which I used right up til i moved to the states in 03 – had a 7 year uptime at one point, and the warranty stickers are STILL on all the case screws.

I think you’re overestimating the fragility of older computers

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

Actually, the TRS-80 CoCo was released 2 year prior to the Dragon. The Dragon design was based off a reference design that Motorola brought to Tandy as a starting point for the design of the CoCo 2. I will say, though, the Dragon was a nice machine. Kind of wish Tandy hadn’t gone cheap on the CoCo 2 compared to it’s British cousin.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re:

I will disagree. All computers have a major failure point, it really only depends on when it will happen and did yours survive it.

Apple eMacs popped capacitors.
Old LCD iMacs would suffer display malfunctions.
Optiplex 260-280 also had capacitor problems.
Optiplex 620. Power supply failures.

The one thing about all of these computers, is if it survived the about a year after peak failure, it probably wasn’t going to fail.

DSchneider (profile) says:

Re: Re:

Typically it’s not the hardware that makes a system outdated, but the software. If you’re running software from the era that the system was created in, it will run just as fast as it did back then. It’s only when you try to install new software on an old system that things slow to a crawl as the new software is expecting allot more resources than the system can give.

10 year old software on a 10 year old system, no problem. 1 year old software on a 10 year old system, problem.

Ntlgnce says:

Really?

Ever heard the phrase, ” if it aint broke don’t fix it”?. It aint broke. Who uses walkie talkies anymore? Heck kids don’t even play with them anymore!! Do they even make them anymore?..
2million to replace something that is not broken is a lot of money. 2 million on a heating and cooling system, That’s worse then the email scams that are out there, ( 1 million on parts and 1 million on labor.). 2 million should build a new school. Anywho,,,,
Mark my words. within the first year of the new “high tech” system, it will have failed 12 times, and had to be upgraded 52 times. I will say “I told you so” now, as when this actually happens, the story will be buried so far into the internet, I probably wont see it.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Really?

Schools don’t work like that. They can’t get money to replace a system when it fails. If they passed a bond to upgrade the building then that is the best time to replace on old hvac system. Labor is usually about 15-25% of the cost, not 50%. It also won’t matter if it fails multiple time since part of that 2 million will be part of a multiyear contract with whoever installed the system. If they designed such a poor system, they will have to spend a lot of time repairing it and that would only cause the company to lose profit. After about 5 years, you don’t renew the contract and have the staff managing it after that. Most of the bugs will be worked out and only needs to be maintained. To build a new school it is more like 20-30 million if you want to have around 20-30 classrooms with full facilities and meet standards. Land just to fit and support a school will cost about 2-3 million.

Chronno S. Trigger (profile) says:

Re: Really?

2 million to replace 19 buildings worth of equipment and a system to communicate and run them? Sounds about right to me. And you would have to add another digit to your estimate to build a new school.

I agree with you on the failure thing though. Any new system has it’s problems that need to be ironed out. I’d bet the Amiga system had it’s problems too until they all got fixed.

That One Other Not So Random Guy says:

a five year old computer is either functionally worthless or is probably hanging onto a single strand of twisted copper before crapping out entirely, amirite?

Um… No. ExxonMobile still has NT machines in the testing labs because the cost to replace the software is astronomical and they still perform their intended function just fine.

There are plenty of legacy systems running out there doing just fine. And so what if you have to buy an i486DX2 or two off of ebay to keep your client from having to spend thousands.

I have seen POS systems with win 95 in smaller businesses with no plans of upgrading. One client was still running DOS 6.22. but it served his needs.

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