Friday 27 September 2013

It's Retro Friday at MIT Haystack Observatory.. by Necessity

Hello from MIT Haystack in the northeast US.  Here, as with any production quality geospace observatory, sometimes we have to reach deep and use whatever tools are available to get the job done.  Today, this took the form of a scramble all-hands hardware debugging session on a legacy Sun disk server powering user space
files for the Atmospheric Sciences Group.  The server's external RAID storage array abruptly turned off due to a bad uninterruptible power supply after it exhausted its batteries.  Unfortunately, its pitiful beeping noise (if there was any) was drowned out by whirring fans in the network closet.

Since no modern computing hardware has real 9 pin serial ports any more, and since the Sun server was designed to run headless with serial only console access, we ended up making use of some .. legacy .. equipment lying around.  The 486DX 33 MHz laptop (8 MB memory) used to be a debug platform for an embedded antenna controller on our 46 meter UHF steerable antenna, talking in that role to a system running embedded DOS 1.0.  The 486DX saw new brief life since it had a working, real serial port.  Somehow, I managed to remember where the Terminal program was on its spiffy, working Windows 3.11 installation.  As you can see, unfortunately the keyboard had a non-functioning "Enter" key (rather critical) so we had to steal a PS/2 external keyboard from somewhere.   See the annotated photo for other qualities of our situation.

The real world intrudes on scientific thoughts.
2 hours later (and several kibbitzers involved too), we had a working system again!  This is actually a good analogy for what goes on regularly at any large facility - lots of improvising with equipment of various vintages, sometimes ancient.  All those things that you forgot might be useful again someday.  However, in this case I'm not hoping for a repeat!

Thanks to Juha Vierinen for the photo at a crucial moment, when things were finally looking a bit better after some despair.

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