Linked by Thom Holwerda on Mon 2nd May 2016 19:13 UTC
Hardware, Embedded Systems

This is a Compaq LTE 5280 laptop from the early 1990s, running a bespoke CA card. In 2016, McLaren Automotive - one of the most high-tech car and technology companies on the planet - still uses it and its DOS-based software to service the remaining hundred McLaren F1s out there, each valued at $10 million or more.

They're finally going to replace them, because it's getting too hard to find replacements.

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Old School
by Alfman on Tue 3rd May 2016 01:04 UTC
Alfman
Member since:
2011-01-28

They're finally going to replace them, because it's getting too hard to find replacements.


I still maintain a DOS app for a client using legacy HVAC systems. DOS is actually still fairly easy to support since most 16bit code still runs fine on modern hardware without much tuning. With UEFI being the norm, that could change, but there are many emulators that work quite well. Personally I would say it's time to upgrade, but to each their own.

I'm curious what this "CA Card" is that specifically makes the Compaq LTE 5280 laptop so special?

A comment in the article suggests it may be a kind of security dongle. I know proprietary hardware dongles used to be common back in the day to provide security by obscurity - luckily the practice has been mostly been phased out (it's always been far more of an inconvenience to legitimate users than for infringing ones using warez). I took a look at the laptop manual and didn't see any reference to "CA Card".

http://www.elhvb.com/mobokive/edwin/laptops/Compaq/Compaq%20LTE...

However it does show a diagram of a very large proprietary looking data port labeled "optional Automobile Adapter", which I assume must be it. Unfortunately my web searches for this bus only come up with irrelevant automobile power converters. If there is more information, I haven't found it.

Reply Score: 3

RE: Old School
by Alfman on Tue 3rd May 2016 01:51 UTC in reply to "Old School"
Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

I am mistaken, it's just a big laptop docking port.

So I don't see anything special in this laptop that would make it irreplaceable. Oh well, it might not even be true, it's just a quote from a person who says a guy from MSO told him. I am just curious about it.

Reply Score: 4

RE: Old School
by Doc Pain on Tue 3rd May 2016 07:50 UTC in reply to "Old School"
Doc Pain Member since:
2006-10-08

I still maintain a DOS app for a client using legacy HVAC systems.


I am (still) in a comparable situation. From time to time, I have to reprogram handheld and mobile radios. The software needed to do so requires a serial port and a slow PC (286 or 386), it must be run on "optimized DOS" (the fight for 640 kB is real). Luckily, the old hardware seems to be so durable this hasn't caused a problem for me in decades.

With UEFI being the norm, that could change, but there are many emulators that work quite well.


There are also tools that help connecting to the "outside world" if that should be neccessary (RS232 via USB, or Centronics via Ethernet, for example).

I know proprietary hardware dongles used to be common back in the day to provide security by obscurity - luckily the practice has been mostly been phased out (it's always been far more of an inconvenience to legitimate users than for infringing ones using warez).


Yes, it's much more convenient to actually not own software, but instead license it, stream it, or use it online. ;-)

However it does show a diagram of a very large proprietary looking data port labeled "optional Automobile Adapter", which I assume must be it.


The manual states that this is intended for battery charging. I'd rather assume (without further checking) that they refer to something like an expansion port, usually used for docking stations.

Reply Score: 4

RE[2]: Old School
by Alfman on Tue 3rd May 2016 18:36 UTC in reply to "RE: Old School"
Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

Doc Pain,

The manual states that this is intended for battery charging. I'd rather assume (without further checking) that they refer to something like an expansion port, usually used for docking stations.


Port #6 is a normal mobile/AC power port.

The function of port #4, which is almost twice as big as the parallel port, is clear once you see the picture of the docking station/port extender that it docks with on page 231.

Does the F1 have a docking station with this port? We'll probably never find out, although IMHO it would have been a particularly bad design to hardcode a proprietary part that they don't have control over.

Reply Score: 2

RE[2]: Old School
by Alfman on Tue 3rd May 2016 21:20 UTC in reply to "RE: Old School"
Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

Doc Pain,

I am (still) in a comparable situation. From time to time, I have to reprogram handheld and mobile radios. The software needed to do so requires a serial port and a slow PC (286 or 386), it must be run on "optimized DOS" (the fight for 640 kB is real). Luckily, the old hardware seems to be so durable this hasn't caused a problem for me in decades.


Ironically they just called me today.
Their product is mostly a headless network device with 485 serial I/O.

Many years ago they were experiencing timing issues because the I/O routines were somewhat CPU dependent, but those were relatively easy to fix. The 640k limit continues to be a pain. They use borland overlays. 32bit flat mode via DPMI would have been better, but I think the code may have been from the 80's so...

I think it's a perfect candidate for linux, but they keep saying "why fix what works".

They're still deploying new sites with these DOS boxes, I don't deal with the hardware but I think the only components they've had difficulty with under DOS is the onboard network/packet drivers. Anyone remember trumpet TCP? We've been pushing that stack hard and unfortunately it has reproducible bugs that we have to work around without source code.


Sometimes we hear about companies running on legacy systems in the news, and we like to make fun of them. But
I wonder how many more companies there are that do it. I have worked with some that still do mainframes, that's still a profitable market niche for IBM.

Reply Score: 2

RE[3]: Old School
by Doc Pain on Wed 4th May 2016 08:11 UTC in reply to "RE[2]: Old School"
Doc Pain Member since:
2006-10-08

I have worked with some that still do mainframes, that's still a profitable market niche for IBM.


There is no need to use the word "still". :-)

The mainframe sector is quite healthy and alive, even though you're right and it's a niche market for the common observer. IBM has sold its laptop business, its PC business, and its x86 server business to Lenovo. What did they keep? Mainframe. Because it's significantly more profitable than laptops, PCs and servers. (IBM's second important market is services, which they also kept.) While you won't see mainframes in anyone's home (except maybe Hercules), it's still in heavy use by governments, banks, and across industry. And it seems that this market is still experiencing growth, even though we don't notice it...

Additionally, IBM still runs the legacy of the AS/400 ("IBM i" or whatever they call it this year), and their RS/6000 descendants are probably still running mission-critical software for some big corporation our whole economical stability depends on. :-)

So: Yes, it's very profitable, or IBM wouldn't do it.

Reply Score: 2

RE[3]: Old School
by Rugxulo on Thu 5th May 2016 00:34 UTC in reply to "RE[2]: Old School"
Rugxulo Member since:
2007-10-09


They're still deploying new sites with these DOS boxes, I don't deal with the hardware but I think the only components they've had difficulty with under DOS is the onboard network/packet drivers. Anyone remember trumpet TCP? We've been pushing that stack hard and unfortunately it has reproducible bugs that we have to work around without source code.


Sadly, there's not a lot of major DOS development left. Stuff still gets done (barely), but it's mostly minor. If you're really still interested, then get on the FreeDOS mailing list(s). Upcoming FD 1.2 won't have any major new infrastructure.

There was one guy who spent a few years writing a TCP stack for DOS (mTCP) that is GPLv3, but I don't know if he's still actively updating it. Another guy also recently ported PicoTCP to DOS (GPLv2), but that's far less robust (so far). The former has FTP, IRC, TELNET, and a few others while the latter only has PING and SNTP. They were both built with OpenWatcom (16-bit real mode) but must be bundled into the program itself (so no TSRs and must comply with GPL).

Other stuff (e.g. Wget or Curl) uses DJGPP (32-bit DPMI) and Watt-32. Similarly, it must be compiled into the main program (e.g. Links2).

But packet drivers are notoriously hard to find, esp. for modern hardware, and even some of the ones available are closed source (unfortunately). The Crynwr collection is far from exhaustive. So that void may be a dealbreaker by itself. (N.B. Getting networking under QEMU or VBox is easy, but that's almost defeating the point.)

Reply Score: 2

When did you last hear of a DOS virus?
by Sabon on Tue 3rd May 2016 21:09 UTC
Sabon
Member since:
2005-07-06

As to why they didn't port the DOS / dongle application to Windows or something else.

Well Windows 3.1 was a joke compared to DOS when it came to reliability. I've always felt the same about Windows up through Windows NT which was the first truly reliable version of Windows but ... well it was something only it's mother could love as ugly as it was.

Keep in mind that I've supported every version of every Microsoft OS since DOS 1.0 with programming plus desktop support.

Also if you use a DOS computer it can reboot VERY fast if you ever need it to.

So, DOS, very dependable, no viruses, reboots VERY fast. I can't think of any reason to use DOS for something like this. (sic)

Reply Score: 2

Alfman Member since:
2011-01-28

Sabon,

So, DOS, very dependable, no viruses, reboots VERY fast. I can't think of any reason to use DOS for something like this. (sic)


I'm not sure if you were being sarcastic, but DOS had plenty of viruses. They were transmitted almost exclusively via floppy. Some were simple com file injections and others could manipulate EXE file headers. Others injected themselves into the boot sector.

Reply Score: 2

darknexus Member since:
2008-07-15

Pretty sure the point was that you're not ever going to get a DOS virus on one of these. If they're not net connected and the only software or disks you put in them are disks you trust, you're not going to get any malware whatever. Even if they are hooked up to the net, the DOS virus circulation is zero these days. Unlike on Windows where just visiting a page that chose the wrong advert can land you in anything from botnet to ransomware before you even realize what happened.

Reply Score: 2

$10 million brick
by unclefester on Thu 5th May 2016 03:49 UTC
unclefester
Member since:
2007-01-13

Sometime in the not so distant future all these McLaren's will be immobile bricks due to hardware/software failure and no customer support.

I recently read the latest McLaren's rely on 80 different computer chips to operate. Good luck with that future owners.

Reply Score: 2

Memories return ....
by ameasures on Sat 7th May 2016 19:48 UTC
ameasures
Member since:
2006-01-09

It comes back to me. I did know, for a brief while (~1988), a guy writing software for monitoring F1 hardware. It was DOS based stuff written in Forth and he was an interesting character with a background that involved having done an apprenticeship with BT (GPO as it was). Darn time slips away when you're not watching!

Reply Score: 2