Friday, October 22, 2010

Industrial computer teardown

One of the main reasons I volunteer at Free Geek Vancouver is to get myself up to my elbows in old gear. My introduction to computer hardware came from several sources: Value Village, dumpster-diving as a 12-year-old for Commodore 64s behind my elementary school, tearing apart whatever parents of friends brought back from the office, but primarily it came from the BC Tel Pioneer Surplus Store. This was a warehouse run by old-timers where people affiliated with BC Tel (now Telus) could rummage through decades of detritus and take it home for pennies a pound. Visually, it looked a lot like Freegeek does.
Here be geeks.

Through the 1990s the warehouse, unfortunately, succumbed to homogenization. Gradually desktop computing took over from custom hardware and what was once a bizarre assortment of obscure telecom gear morphed into just another bunch of superannuated desktops.

I'm incredibly lucky to have had the chance to take some of that old gear home during that pivotal period of change in the world of computing. Growing up, my suburban basement was filled with pieces of these relics -- teletypes, an enormous WANG word processor, daisy-wheel printers, relay banks, electronic charting devices, stereo equipment, and more.

Free Geek of course deals almost exclusively in computer gear and most of what comes in is middle-of-the-road -- neither new nor old enough to be exciting. But occasionally something pretty strange comes in. When that happens, a volunteer will fall in love with a piece of old gear at Receiving only to have his or her heart broken when it's generally scrapped, functional or not, for being unsaleable. For a long time, there was a museum collection but it grew to fill whatever space it had -- first a corner of the warehouse, then an outside storage locker -- and nobody quite knew what to do with it.

Of necessity, FGV is currently pretty ruthless -- the mandate doesn't extend to a museum and there is simply no room for the stuff to collect. (Incidentally, if anyone wants to spearhead a better policy, please bring it to the fg-general mailing list! We're all ears.)

On Thursday an old industrial computer came in. Interesting, yes. Unusual, yes. Valuable, no.

Pentium-class industrial computer

Nerd-out: Industrial computer: ISA passive backplane motherboard. Pentium (90mhz or so, probably) CPU with integrated video, SCSI, etc. on an SBC (Single Board Computer). Two Fujitsu 3GB-ish hard drives, two tape backup units, and a LCD and control panel that probably conformed to an obscure industrial standard but wasn't anything I recognized.

Disassembly difficulty: four skinned knuckles out of five.

Backplane, cards removed

It's pointless to try to sell this kind of thing, but if one is interested and present at the right station at the right time, one might get the chance to be the last person to appreciate its existence by tearing it down for scrap metal. It may not live on in a museum, but this is the nerd's equivalent of giving a Viking funeral.

Scrapped. And ever-so-slightly dusty.
It's now consigned variously to a white bag (plastic and miscellaneous), card recycling (motherboard, SBC, misc. cards), and various other corners. Parts of it will bring in a tiny bit of recycling revenue -- the CPU, RAM, and the metal chassis, for example. And just maybe part of it will live on; I pulled a couple of SCSI adapters and tucked them into the SCSI widget drawer in the store.

Of course, I'd love to see Free Geek Vancouver partner up with an organization that can house and exhibit the really notable stuff that does come in occasionally. (Granted, this one probably isn't it.) But until then, I'll try to eulogize a few things here.

Farewell, old soldier!


  1. Last year, I found someone who was interested in taking over as the holder of the museum pieces. He had his own collection of (mostly functional) ancient computing pieces, storage space and was halfway to negotiating a mortar and bricks museum site.

    He was willing to pay for interim storage and take responsibility (and not necessarily ownership) for the FG museum pieces. I brought him to Free Geek, and he had a talk with a staff member who shall remain nameless.

    That was pretty much the last I heard from Free Geek for about 6 months.

  2. Hey Stephen -- sorry to hear it. I think pitching a temporary experiment to fg-general (and at a monthly meeting) is a good way to secure yourself some leeway to try something new. Particularly since museum gear is getting scrapped, there's not much reason for us to cling too closely to the current practices; as long as nothing private goes out (i.e. all drives are wiped or destroyed), there are no liability risks. The only other problem I can think of OTOH is some kind of exclusive arrangement, which would be bad mojo, but I don't think that would be necessary. I'd suggest pitching to a monthly meeting if the fellow is still interested. I would personally be very happy if something better was possible with museum-worthy gear; it's a terrible missed opportunity to do something good with it.

  3. "what was once a bizarre assortment of obscure telecom gear morphed into just another bunch of superannuated desktops." Couldn't agree more.

    I once had the opportunity to take apart an old RS6000 machine that had served as one of three servers for a 300-500 person company. It was about 4 feet deep, two and a half feet wide, and three feet tall.

    I can only assume that the room it was standing in was built around it, because this machine was too difficult to remove without doing tons of damage to the door frame. The simple fact was that it was too heavy to wrestle onto a dolly small enough to enter the room. So, I had to make it lighter.

    This thing was like taking apart a car. After popping the hood, I had access to a single SCSI disk in a cage. The IT director told me that in those times, that disk would have been four thousand dollars brand new. It was in lovely condition with a belt of thick copper around it, but of little use - so it was scrapped. By that I mean I took it outside and pummeled it with a 15-pound mallet.

    The fan units were in bottom, and they were massive. There were two 'slabs' consisting of 5" fans, seven fans per slab. Next I removed the SCSI cards from the backplane. Each card was nearly two feet long. Then I found the real treasure - the CPU cage, which pulled out with the assistance of a built-in handle. This cage was as big as a standard computer case, and heavier. The backplane was chock full of gold-colored processors, with lovely Sun hieroglyphics etched in them.

    It had three CPU cards each with dual CPU's, and a single RAM card that had eight RAM modules (out of 24 slots!). The cards and backplane are extremely thick, and I estimate each has at least eight layers of circuitry on them. This cage, despite its age, is completely free of dust. Its sitting in my room until I find a museum capable of accepting it.

    In all, it took two hours to remove enough components to make the device light enough to put on the dolly for recycling.

  4. Later in my life, I had the opportunity to take apart a real oddity. The machine was similar to a desktop machine, except:

    1. It was slightly wider than a desktop
    2. The casing was a shocking teal/blue color
    3. Instead of aluminum, the bezel was made of a thick casted material. The back was particularly thick (one inch!!!), which I suspect acted as a builtin heatsink for this machine. It also made this very heavy at about 40 pounds.

    These three traits made me think that this machine designed for video/sound processing or other industrial-strength processing needs.

    As before, the real gem was the CPU unit. This was a 6" brick nested deep. Here's a picture:

    Keep in mind I'm 6 feet tall and my hand is a normal size.

    And with the heat sink removed:

    (I tucked the heat sink underneath the board)

    The interesting thing about this unit is the artful design work on that copper (gold?) plating. It was completely hidden by the heat sink, so it was clearly designed "for fun" by somebody. This kind of thing is absent from all modern machines. I suspect overworked engineers are lacking the time and/or motivation to make works of art that nobody is supposed to see.

    I will probably turn it into a business card holder. It's too beautiful to put in some drawer and collect dust.

  5. Ah, that looks like a Pentium Pro chip! Those were beefy. I'd be guessing about the case, but I'd guess it was an audio workstation; I've seen one or two machines with a lot of effort put into sound isolation. Got any pics of that?

  6. Not quite, AUTUIN. This was a MIPS vr12000:

    The brand is SiliconGraphics, but I can't find the model for the life of me. None of the pics on Google show the thick rear that I remember, nor do the shapes seem familiar.

    It doesn't help that each of the dozen common SGI models are a variant of blue/teal in color, and similar in shape (a cross between a sphere and a square).

  7. Ah -- beyond my experience. I never dealt with SGI stuff beyond ogling the labs they used to have at SFU.

  8. Here's the previously mentioned cage.

  9. Back when I was 10 years old, I once stole an old industrial PC (I’m not sure but it looked something like that) from an abandoned house next to our house. I disassembled it with a screw driver and a hammer (I didn't know what I was doing), I was fascinated with the electronics inside but didn't know how they would work or what they really were. As far as I could remember I ended up with an empty cage a few RAM modules, two CPU's and some pieces of electronics which I had no idea what those were; so I sold them in a scrapyard for $2.30, then they obviously ditched me but at that time that was already a big amount of money for me. Only then I realised the value of that hardware when I made it to study college to take up Information Technology and I wished I could've known better.


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