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Windows Software

Windows 3.1 Glitch Causes Problems At French Airport -- Wait, 3.1? (vice.com) 406

OakDragon writes: Microsoft has tamped down the earth on XP's grave, steered Internet Explorer toward the nursing home, and is trying to convince everyone Windows 10 is a bright up-and-comer. But in the Paris airport of Orly, a system called DECOR — which helps air traffic controllers relay weather information to pilots — is running on Windows 3.1. That program suffered a glitch recently that grounded planes for some time. The airport actually runs on a variety of old systems, including Windows XP and UNIX. Maintenance is a problem. There are only three people in Paris that work on DECOR issues, and one of them is retiring soon. Hardware is also an issue. "Sometimes we have to go rummaging on eBay to replace certain parts," said Fiacre. "In any case, these machines were not designed to keep working for more than 20 years."
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Windows 3.1 Glitch Causes Problems At French Airport -- Wait, 3.1?

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  • Virtulize? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Henriok ( 6762 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:08PM (#50922437)
    Wouldn't virtualization be a viable option here?
    • Re:Virtualize? (Score:4, Insightful)

      by Duhfus ( 960817 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:11PM (#50922473)
      Possibly for the physical machines needing parts from eBay issue. I think their real problem is still needing to run on Windows 3.1, and once you address that (hopefully moving to something much more modern) you can solve the legacy machine part as well.
      • Re:Virtualize? (Score:5, Insightful)

        by alphatel ( 1450715 ) * on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:16PM (#50922535)
        You're both wrong. The reason why these machines weren't virtualized a while ago is that you have to make a lot of serial/parallel/ps2 conversions for ports that are truly physical. These are the types of programs that send specific voltage down the wires and expect exactly something specific in return. Lots of times you try to get those returns right and you simply can't anticipate the various bugs that amazingly show up just a few months after you convert. The real problem? Some are nearly unsolveable. You can't even figure out what the manufacturer/programmer was trying to achieve with their hardware interface so it's best to simply leave eveything as is. Half these people don't even work in computers anymore, let alone the vendor they were at in the 80's.

        This coming from a guy who espouses VMs every day on a variety of systems.
        • by ISoldat53 ( 977164 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:22PM (#50922619)
          Shoulda used TRS80 and arcnet.
        • Re:Virtualize? (Score:5, Informative)

          by Rei ( 128717 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:27PM (#50922671) Homepage

          My favorite I've encountered about ATC systems is how the documentation lies. For example, how checksums are to be computed computed for a particular broad class of messages. The ARINC specs go into detail, with diagrams and everything about the computation process. But when you look at existing samples of code, they don't do this - they do this weird thing with a lookup table and uncalled-for bitshifts and the like. After spending a day or so studying the code, I finally figured out what they were trying to do - they were trying to "optimize" the algorithm in the specs. But in the process they made it deviate from what is actually supposed to be computed in about four different ways (plus, their "optimizations" don't actually save compute time, the simple math operations are faster than the lookup in the "precompute" table that they made).

          So what do we do when we need to compute and check checksums? We use the wrong code, of course! It's what's "out in the wild", so who cares what the specs say we're supposed to use, it's what we have to use if we want checksums to ever to come up valid. Hopefully they'll eventually update the specs to reflect the reality.

          • One problem is when you get to the specs written by companies that use the same protocols. On the civil GPS unit I had to communicate with, the specification on the CRC protocol left out half of what you needed to know. So we just used a CRC table for another application that produced results that the GPS unit accepted. Of course the original CRC code was about a decade old but... yay?
        • Re:Virtualize? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by ripvlan ( 2609033 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:48PM (#50922915)

          Very true I'm sure. But I also believe in "where there's a will, there's a way"

          I've been in these kinds of discussions. The Cost to figure out or build such a gap-device is too-large, or equal to "just rewrite it in modern tech." So everyone waits for another 10 years while the rewrite doesn't happen. Rather than picking it apart and refactoring a bit here and there - wait for the big bang!!

        • by ebh ( 116526 )

          Probably needs a 20ma current loop to drive the ASR-33 Teletype.

        • You're both wrong. The reason why these machines weren't virtualized a while ago is that you have to make a lot of serial/parallel/ps2 conversions for ports that are truly physical. These are the types of programs that send specific voltage down the wires and expect exactly something specific in return. Lots of times you try to get those returns right and you simply can't anticipate the various bugs that amazingly show up just a few months after you convert. The real problem? Some are nearly unsolveable. You can't even figure out what the manufacturer/programmer was trying to achieve with their hardware interface so it's best to simply leave eveything as is. Half these people don't even work in computers anymore, let alone the vendor they were at in the 80's. This coming from a guy who espouses VMs every day on a variety of systems.

          Is there a compelling reason that Windows of any version is needed here? Looks like the underpinnings here are DOS. So if they get computers that have just 1MB of RAM, fired up w/ FreeDOS, that should work well and run all the apps in question, right? In fact, it would be not just possible, but actually feasible, to have a single chip computer - say a 486 at 1GHz w/ 1MB of RAM and 1GB of SSD that would be a much faster computer for the same software. Since it's FreeDOS, one needn't depend on Microsoft

        • Re:Virtualize? (Score:5, Insightful)

          by drinkypoo ( 153816 ) <martin.espinoza@gmail.com> on Friday November 13, 2015 @03:00PM (#50924221) Homepage Journal

          You're both wrong. The reason why these machines weren't virtualized a while ago is that you have to make a lot of serial/parallel/ps2 conversions for ports that are truly physical. These are the types of programs that send specific voltage down the wires and expect exactly something specific in return.

          Ironically, you just named three ports where that's either not the case, or trivial to achieve. All PC keyboard ports are digital 5V, there are only two kinds of signaling, and nobody was using the old kind by the time Windows 3.1 came out. All PC parallel ports are digital 5V. And by definition, RS-232 is 12V, although many if not most ports will accept a 5V signal. (If you hook up any outgoing lines, though, you may well murder any 5V serial devices you hook up, if they don't have a real MAX232 in them.)

          The real problem is that a lot of these PCs have ISA-bus interface cards in them, and their drivers are often crap that is pissy about timings. Even a really high-speed PC is enough to make them not work. In order to reasonably replace these devices, you have to analyze the circuit and/or connection to figure out what the original control board was doing, throw it away, and replace it with something else. These days you might reasonably replace it with any little microcontroller board, like an Arduino. They are faster than early PCs were! But first you have to figure out how. Those boards also often included a specialty power supply to drive whatever-it-was, so you've got to replace that as well.

          Most of the time it's going to make more sense to throw it all away and start with a new thing. But it's not impossible, just expensive.

    • Or emulate.

    • Re:Virtulize? (Score:5, Insightful)

      by avandesande ( 143899 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:14PM (#50922501) Journal

      There might be some weird ISA interface to a radio or something that you can't virtualize-

      • by gnupun ( 752725 )

        It's management's fault to not modernize the OS and hardware. They want to save design costs not updating software/hardware, and they get away with it for 25 years or so, but then if something critical fails, this happens... the whole system is shutdown.

        • Re:Virtulize? (Score:5, Informative)

          by aardvarkjoe ( 156801 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @01:38PM (#50923435)

          In 25 years, there've probably been 25 managers who have walked away with fat bonuses for keeping this department under budget. The current one will get a slap on the wrist. They're just playing the odds to get the best outcome for themselves.

        • by jopsen ( 885607 )

          It's management's fault to not modernize the OS and hardware. They want to save design costs not updating software/hardware, and they get away with it for 25 years or so, but then if something critical fails, this happens... the whole system is shutdown.

          If it lives for 25 years with minimal cost, is this really a bad strategy?


          When I write software now, I try to aim for it to live 10 years without any maintenance (not always realistic, just an idealistic goal).
          Then I deploy it and stick my head in the sand. Most of my systems won't live for 10 years, but if something ends up doing so, is this really a bad strategy?
          I think stick your head in the sand and wait 25 years for the system to crash and someone to call you could be a cost efficient strategy :)

      • https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/... [wikipedia.org]

        Next issue?

        This thing takes weather reports and pipes them to systems on airplanes. Very likely, the airplanes are newer than this system. Heck, you could replace the system with iPads in every cockpit for the cost of a couple of repairs to a system that old.

    • The problem is not likely the OS or software running on that PC. The problem is far more likely to be a specific piece of hardware on that PC that is used to communicate with some other system.

      Remember Windows 3.1 did not have any native network stack. You had to buy or download a free network stack separately (Trumpet WinSock, anyone?). So any interface that came out of the PC was likely some proprietary protocol that had some "interesting" drivers that loaded before Windows 3.1 started and hooked direc

    • 32 bit disk access and 32 bit file access does not work that well in VM.

      also this likely needs real serial parallel ports maybe even custom PCI / ISA cards. Can you do ISA pass though in VM? Will even a PCIe to ISA Bridge work with the cards out side of a VM?

  • Mainframes (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Tablizer ( 95088 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:14PM (#50922513) Journal

    This is why mainframe software lives on and on. It won't go out of fashion because it never was in fashion (except in the mid 60's) and there is so much mainframe code floating around that something or someone will always support it.

    • Re:Mainframes (Score:5, Insightful)

      by gstoddart ( 321705 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:37PM (#50922789) Homepage

      And, more importantly, it's also why you can't always replace those mainframe systems: because it works, and has worked for decades.

      I've been on projects to replace aging mainframe stuff, some of which went back to the mid 60s or so.

      You could start off trying to design a replacement, gather requirements, and design something which works on your assumptions and in the limited use cases you've seen.

      And the more you delve into it, and discover all of the exceptions, corner cases, "didn't we tell you that?", sheer size of the data, all of the hairy bits, the 50 other systems which tie into that system and would also need to be replaced or updated ... you can quickly reach the point where you really can't design a system which does the same things, you can't replace all of the integration points, you can't even really map out all the logic and business rules embedded in that system.

      At the end of the day I've seen at least two such projects utterly fail.

      Say what you will about legacy mainframe stuff. But they work, are so closely tied into the entire business and other systems that you can't simply swap them out as easily as people think you can, and as often as not are vastly more complex than you can possibly know until it's too late.

      They're old, clunky, convoluted, and utterly mission critical. And when every other computer system in the company ties into them to extract data, you quickly realize you can't possibly update all of them.

      That, and you might also find that you simply can't match the performance and throughput of those damned things.

      A mainframe is a big lumbering beast. But it's a big lumbering beast which has kept the company moving for decades, hasn't had much in the way of downtime, has been expanded and added onto over the years, and in many cases will cost so much damned money to replace that nobody can afford to do it.

      The guys coming in thinking they can whip up something in .NET, running SQL server, and on one machine? They often have no idea of just how big of a task they're trying to take on.

      Personally, I would run screaming in the opposite direction from any project trying to replace a mainframe that's been in service for a long period. Because the scope of those things, and extent to which they interact with everything else in the company can be mind-boggling.

      • by deKernel ( 65640 )

        Hi Five there brother. I have been down that road which eventually ran right off the cliff for all the reasons you stated. We tried early on to explain, but I had a manager that confidence that we could handle everything in a timely manor. Needless to say, he is employed there anymore.

      • by PRMan ( 959735 )
        I worked at a company where they were 8 years into a 2-year mainframe migration. And they had halted all mainframe development for over 5 years. I hear they are just about done, 3 more years later.
      • SQL Server can do the job. you just have to spend a crapload of money on storage to separate all your drives and files and indexes and everything to it's own RAID1 volume for performance. none of this just put it on RAID5 and logs on RAID1. by the time you make it fault tolerant with the high priced storage, you just bought yourself a mainframe
      • Mainframes aren't even obsolete. IBM still sells them, fully code compatible going all the way back to 1968 when the first System/360 mainframe shipped.

        Companies that use this stuff have big expensive support contracts with IBM. They don't replace it because it works. In fact it works so well that "the mainframe is down!" is seen as a HUGE DISASTER in the business process, akin to a building burning down.

        It's a whole different world than the modern idea of blades in a rack running Linux. And it still works

  • No surprise... (Score:5, Insightful)

    by creimer ( 824291 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:15PM (#50922525) Homepage
    When I worked at the college bookstore warehouse in the early 1990's, we had an ancient IBM XT computer with dual 5.25" drives, an amber monitor and a dot matrix printer for printing shipping labels. It did that one job exceptionally well. I wouldn't be surprised if it still working there today.
    • by Nyder ( 754090 )

      When I worked at the college bookstore warehouse in the early 1990's, we had an ancient IBM XT computer with dual 5.25" drives, an amber monitor and a dot matrix printer for printing shipping labels. It did that one job exceptionally well. I wouldn't be surprised if it still working there today.

      IBM XT computers were not ancient in the early 1990's.

      • by creimer ( 824291 )
        The IBM XT was nine years old when I started work in Spring 1992, running an 8088 processor. The 286, 386 and 486 processors were on the market, and the Pentium was on the horizon. By prevailing CPU standards, it was ancient.
      • Well, in 1993 I bought a 486 machine.

        A dual floppy IBM XT could be as old as 1983, ran an 8088 [wikipedia.org], and ran at 4.77MHz.

        So, yes, by a lot of standards, an IBM XT was ancient in the early 90s. At the very least it was around 4-5 generations of CPU behind contemporary Intel offerings.

    • by armanox ( 826486 )

      I was still seeing VT102s in use at a Doctor's office in the Baltimore area about 5 years ago. Also last I saw in a large pharmacy near me (three years ago now?) they were still running DOS 6.22.

      • by creimer ( 824291 )
        Although the Records & Admission office at my local community college have updated PCs, each PC had a terminal emulator and a 9600 baud serial link to the mainframe computer.
  • Orly? (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:16PM (#50922545)

    Fucking hell, I'd much rather run a mission-critical system on Windows 3.1 than Windows 10. Complexity means more potential points of failure. Windows 10 is doing so much stuff all the time that it makes a horrendous option for a machine that's chugging along doing one thing predictably and reliably. As long as it's isolated from the wild, once something works, one leaves a system the fuck alone.

    If employment is an issue, employ more people. If hardware is an issue, virtualise on the most stable, simple possible hypervisor.

    • by godrik ( 1287354 )

      Lol. Not sure you did it on purpose, but the airport that suffered the bug is "Orly" indeed! :)

    • by armanox ( 826486 )

      Hey - if they need employees who can maintain Windows 3.11 I know that I'd go for the right price. I still keep a Win 3.11 system running just for fun (along side my Windows Me laptop)

  • Viva la Windows
  • by mt2mb4me ( 550507 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:25PM (#50922647)
    We do third party support for out of warranty shit, The fun one over here (for us anyways) is MPE, Factories still run on this stuff, everyone who supports it is dying, it's hard to train new people to deal with the old way of doing things. But there is always a need somewhere. I don't see why Microsoft doesn't spend their resources for SAS for updates on antiquated software. They could probably hold their company indefinitely just running windows XP,7 or 8. The corporate licensing could compensate for security updates on the consumer side. In the early days upgrading all the time made sense. But how many different ways do you need to edit a document, or use Excel. These things are at a point. Windows is a stable operating system. Why should companies keep shelling out for new hardware, when for most people (not designers, or other power users) a core 2 duo is more than enough power. As to virutalizing, Not likely, and more importantly, not free. Windows 3.1 is 16 bit. If you didn't need access to any hardware (old network cards or specialty cards of any kind) there would be a shot. But this is pre HAL, it relies on BIOS for control of it's hardware. Also, even if you could virtualize, you would need to know the coders to fix all the bugs from the switch over. How do you do that in a live system that was pre-virtualization without making downtime. Downtime that isn't really available for an airport. Lastly, they have a system that "works" they would have to pay the capital investment to switch. (I know they should but hey they are French)
    • They could probably hold their company indefinitely just running windows XP,7 or 8

      Corporations have to constantly grow, or they're considered "dying". MS isn't going to grow if they can't get customers to keep shelling out $$$ for new versions of the old software they're already using.

  • 20 years? (Score:5, Interesting)

    by fustakrakich ( 1673220 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:28PM (#50922683) Journal

    That's not a long time at all. How old is our perfectly functional ordinary telephone? If computers are going to remain so maintenance intensive, the damn things will never really be any good. We have to be able to plug it in and ignore it for those 20 years, until the smoke leaks out

    • Do you think consumer electronics that have seen a nominal amount of usage over 20 years will be still working? Probably not, and that includes your telephone example. I don't think there is anything special either way about computers.

      • by cdrudge ( 68377 )

        Do you think consumer electronics that have seen a nominal amount of usage over 20 years will be still working? Probably not, and that includes your telephone example.

        Ever seen a Model 500 telephone [wikipedia.org] or one of it's successors? Chances are that they are well over 20 years old. Some that are still in use may have been 20 years old 20 years ago.

        • I am not talking about a completely analog phone- that is a ridiculous example. How about a 20 YO cell phone, or answering machine or cordless phone?

      • Do you think consumer electronics that have seen a nominal amount of usage over 20 years will be still working?

        It used to be normal for electronics to last for twenty years. People used to throw away stereo systems because they got dirty volume pots and they were too cheap and/or lazy to fix them. Now they throw them away because they lose an audio channel.

    • We have to be able to plug it in and ignore it for those 20 years, until the smoke leaks out

      We did, and it is.

  • I remember trying ti buy a train ticket at the Charles de Gaulle airport station after flying in, in 2005. The queues were horrendous, and then one of ticket machines crashed, and all the people in queue swore and walked away. Except for me, since I recognised that the machine was running OS/2 Warp. By having the patience to wait a couple of minutes for it to reboot, I effectively jumped the queue. It took only three tries to get the machine to accept my credit card ... I hope their systems are a bit better

  • So cute (Score:5, Funny)

    by ITRambo ( 1467509 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:35PM (#50922767)
    They're so cute when they're young. But so clumsy. Someday this little Windows 3.1 machine will grow up to be bigger stronger, just not any faster.
  • TFA doesn't say. The software (including Win 3.1) may still be doing just what it always did correctly, which might explain why it hasn't been replaced.
  • by tekrat ( 242117 ) on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:45PM (#50922879) Homepage Journal

    Considering I still use a TRS-80 Model 100 on a regular basis (great keyboard!), Systems using Windows 3.1 do not surprise me.

    Then again, I work for a bank, login to a mainframe and review COBOL code that dates back into 1980... So, yeah. I'm not surprised.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Friday November 13, 2015 @12:59PM (#50923055)

    Demand support nearly forever. When steam was replaced here in the mid 50s to late 60s, the average age of the replaced engines were around 50 years. The replacement engines are still in operation. The main reason is safety. When designing a new locomotive, the manufactor spend a fortune verifying the performance, which is then added to the price (naturally). On delivery of the first of its kind, it goes through a whole lot of testing and documentation to ensure that it's not too heavy for the track, works with the signal system and all that stuff. It takes time and cost millions. It's a lot cheaper once the type is certified, but they are still tested with non-free tests. This makes buying a used already certified engine quite attractive and as a result, spare parts are produced for many decades after production stopped. It's a demand from the railroads and supplying those parts makes manufactors trustworthy enough to be candidates for new engines expected to be used for at least 30 years, likely more than that.

    Computers are way too short lived. Powerplants/grid, railroad signals, air traffic control and so on are hard to replace systems and once they have something working, they want to stick to their systems as long as possible. They make horrible contracts since they are unable to get the spare parts they need. The US army invented VHDL to give a description of the work of a chip and you would not be able to sell to the army without VHDL code. The idea is that if the army needs a replacement chip 20 years later and the original company went out of business, they can send the VHDL code to another company and say "make this chip using housing XYZ". That will ensure they don't have to scrap helicopters or whatever because a single chip went out of production. Civilians should be equally demanding for critical systems.

    • The problem is that that approach you describe with VHDL doesn't actually work. The Army has all kinds of problems sourcing obsolete parts these days. If what you described actually worked, they'd just get someone to fab the chips for them.. But they don't, they source them from all kinds of weird little suppliers of NOS components, and frequently end up getting counterfeit stuff from China.

      Moreover, there's a lot more to a chip design than the HDL code. You can't just give some foundry some HDL code an

  • "Maintenance is a problem."

    No shit. Really?

    I'm guessing the business justification to replace these systems has read about as benign as this understatement for decades now.

    Let's hope for the city of Paris learns a lesson here when one of the three people supporting this system agrees to fix it at the rate of $500,000/hr. (2 hour minimum of course).

  • "The airport actually runs on a variety of old systems, including Windows XP and UNIX."

    Depending on what actual operating system this is, just because its UNIX doesn't mean its old.

    If it was some version of SunOS UNIX, yeah I'd say its old :)

  • Look I understand the desire to spare, but there are a heap of vendor which propose this exact service (I work for one !) and i doubt it is connected to anything for which tehre would not be an interface we handle already (from MATIP to other weird protocol), even going to change format for you, all on modern cheap hardware. having anything that run 3.1 when it should be easily to get for cheap such a service.... So if there is no incredibly rare hardware unknown protocol reason, then it is cheer stupidity.

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