Would you trust your nuclear missiles to a floppy disk?

May 27, 2016 by Rob Miles, The Conversation
Credit: George Chernilevsky

What can you do with a floppy disk these days? Apple retired floppy drives with its original 1998 iMac, PC manufacturer Dell followed suit in 2003 and now they are but a distant memory. But, according to a recent US government public accounts committee report, legacy computer systems using floppy disks are still used today for controlling part of the US Nuclear Command.

In the old days a "legacy" was something valuable that you might be left when a great aunt passed away. In the world of computers, they are a lot less fun: a legacy computer system is one that is old – obsolete even – but one which you are stuck with, often simply because it does the job and replacing it is too complex, too difficult, too expensive, or all three.

You might think such systems are rare in this modern day, but in fact whenever you buy something on a credit or debit card, conduct banking transactions, or take a flight, among other things, computer systems dating back many decades are an integral part of the process. Banks, air traffic control systems and many core civil or military functions rely on technology that is well past its sell-by date.

To put this into context, the system in question, the Pentagon's Strategic Automated Command and Control System, is part of a 53-year old computer network built around the IBM Series/1 minicomputer. Priced at between US$10,000-100,0000 when launched in 1976, it has around the same power as today's Arduino microcontroller boards for home-brew projects that can be bought for a few pounds. The huge 8" floppy disks hold a 500 kilobytes (0.5 megabytes) of data. You'd need around four of these disks to store just one average MP3 music file.

But amazing though it something as antiquated as this Series/1 minicomputer sounds, the report indicates that it alive and well in the bowels of the Pentagon to "handle functions related to intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft". One hopes it is still working well and that there is a cupboard full of spare System 1 boards, chips and power supplies to keep it running.

But legacy systems are not just about hardware. There is a load of legacy software still in use today too. For example, the programming language COBOL was invented in the 1950s and has been used to create many of the systems that underpin modern business. That's also true of FORTRAN, a language which has been a mainstay of scientific programming for over 60 years. In fact, if I was giving careers advice to a young developer hoping to make their mark, I'd be strongly inclined to advise them to spend some time with these dinosaurs of computing – because as specialists of yesteryear grow old and retire while the systems they created and maintained show no sign of doing so, the expertise to keep them running is drying up and skills are in high demand.

In for the long haul

Having said that, I'm quite relaxed about the age of these systems. Software that has been behaving itself for 40 years is probably going to keep working. So long as we can keep the hardware going as well, there's no reason to suppose it couldn't continue for another 40. I'm a big fan of computer systems designed to be small and simple, with less to go wrong: modern hardware and software is capable of astonishing things, but the complexity and interdependence found in today's systems can bring horrendous problems, as we saw recently when one developer managed to break thousands of programs in a fit of pique.

Why rush to replace something that works with another that may bring a whole new world of problems? Software doesn't wear out, and so long as the context in which it is being used and the requirements we have of it don't change, there is no pressing need to change it. As Pentagon spokeswoman Lt Col Valerie Henderson told AFP news agency: "This system remains in use because, in short, it still works."

I think the ultimate solution to our legacy computing problems lies in the way that computers are extremely good at behaving like other computers. It turns out to be comparatively easy to write a program that can behave like, or emulate, another computer processor. Fans of more commonplace obsolete computers such as the Sinclair Spectrum, Commodore 64 or BBC Micro can get their retro gaming fix via the huge number of emulators that can run software for old computers on current PCs or even smartphones.

All we need to do is create a software emulation of the IBM Series/1 that runs on off-the-shelf PC hardware and all that complex, messy and probably un-recreatable programming designed for an obsolete system can run on into the future, code that becomes almost immortal.

Explore further: Gov't report: Feds spend billions to run ancient technology

Related Stories

Gov't report: Feds spend billions to run ancient technology

May 25, 2016

The government is spending about three-fourths of its technology budget maintaining aging computer systems, including platforms more than 50 years old in vital areas from nuclear weapons to Social Security. One still uses ...

Game not over for retro games

January 9, 2013

Generations of children around the world were weaned on computer games like 'Pac-man', 'Galaga' and 'Donkey Kong', to name just a few. Indeed many of today's first-rate computer programmers, scientists and researchers took ...

IBM announces cloud-based quantum computing platform

May 4, 2016

(Tech Xplore)—IBM has announced the development of a quantum computing platform that will allow users to access and program its 5 qubit quantum computer over the Internet. Called the IBM Quantum Experience, it is, the company ...

Tool chain for real-time programming

March 21, 2016

In aerospace, automation, and automotive technologies, smart electronic computer systems have to meet a number of security and real-time requirements. In case of critical incidents, for instance, the software's response time ...

Recommended for you

The powerful meteor that no one saw (except satellites)

March 19, 2019

At precisely 11:48 am on December 18, 2018, a large space rock heading straight for Earth at a speed of 19 miles per second exploded into a vast ball of fire as it entered the atmosphere, 15.9 miles above the Bering Sea.

OSIRIS-REx reveals asteroid Bennu has big surprises

March 19, 2019

A NASA spacecraft that will return a sample of a near-Earth asteroid named Bennu to Earth in 2023 made the first-ever close-up observations of particle plumes erupting from an asteroid's surface. Bennu also revealed itself ...

Nanoscale Lamb wave-driven motors in nonliquid environments

March 19, 2019

Light driven movement is challenging in nonliquid environments as micro-sized objects can experience strong dry adhesion to contact surfaces and resist movement. In a recent study, Jinsheng Lu and co-workers at the College ...

Revealing the rules behind virus scaffold construction

March 19, 2019

A team of researchers including Northwestern Engineering faculty has expanded the understanding of how virus shells self-assemble, an important step toward developing techniques that use viruses as vehicles to deliver targeted ...

20 comments

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

RichManJoe
5 / 5 (1) May 27, 2016
Good article. I was surprised at how the news commentators tried to equate the latest technology with safety. Would you trust Windows 8 with your life? Give me DOS any day. Also consider the nuclear weapons have 60 year old technology in them. And that is what you want, because all of those components have been tested, analyzed, simulated to insure that they will not misfire. You don't want to replace all of that technology when every new generation of transistors or microprocessors or operating systems or compilers are developed.
antigoracle
1 / 5 (2) May 27, 2016
In fact, if I was giving careers advice to a young developer hoping to make their mark, I'd be strongly inclined to advise them to spend some time with these dinosaurs of computing.....

That's the worse advice ever. There is no maintenance or upgrade being done on this software and even if there were you aren't going to mark anything. The last time these legacy programmers were in demand was during the Y2K debacle. Do you recall anyone making a mark?
Da Schneib
3 / 5 (2) May 27, 2016
They'd probably better make sure they back up those floppies onto something a little more dependable sometime soon.
Eikka
not rated yet May 27, 2016
So long as we can keep the hardware going as well, there's no reason to suppose it couldn't continue for another 40.


You can completely emulate the entire hardware in even a modest computer today. All you need is to make an interface card to talk to the rest of the physical hardware.

They could do away with the floppies and old mainframes entirely if they wanted to, and load the entire thing into a virtual machine.
Eikka
not rated yet May 27, 2016
Also consider the nuclear weapons have 60 year old technology in them. And that is what you want, because all of those components have been tested, analyzed, simulated to insure that they will not misfire.


The parts are also 60 years old because no new replacements are made anymore - it's all stockpiled stuff - which is way beyond their testing envelope and there's no guarantee any of it works anymore when you press the button.
antigoracle
2.3 / 5 (3) May 27, 2016
Makes me wonder, what's the state of the Russian system?
Milou
not rated yet May 27, 2016
To antigoracle - North Korea uses their version of the iPad called "Pencil&Paper pad". We are all at risk?
wiyosaya
not rated yet May 27, 2016
So long as we can keep the hardware going as well, there's no reason to suppose it couldn't continue for another 40.


You can completely emulate the entire hardware in even a modest computer today. All you need is to make an interface card to talk to the rest of the physical hardware.

They could do away with the floppies and old mainframes entirely if they wanted to, and load the entire thing into a virtual machine.

And very likely expose your system to the vulnerabilities of the host. One would need to make it a specific task to close these vulnerabilities in a critical system like this before it were placed on-line. Doing so may very well be much more difficult than the emulation.
wiyosaya
not rated yet May 27, 2016
Also consider the nuclear weapons have 60 year old technology in them. And that is what you want, because all of those components have been tested, analyzed, simulated to insure that they will not misfire.


The parts are also 60 years old because no new replacements are made anymore - it's all stockpiled stuff - which is way beyond their testing envelope and there's no guarantee any of it works anymore when you press the button.

I highly doubt that any of this equipment - especially that used for the control of nuclear missiles - is in any state of disrepair. I would not be surprised if the US Govt has a special contract with some company to obtain replacement parts for anything that fails. If any Govt is so stupid as to let something like this fall into disrepair, society has a major problem.
wiyosaya
5 / 5 (1) May 27, 2016
FORTRAN is far from an ancient language. In fact, go to any super computing center anywhere in the world and you will almost certainly find FORTRAN. There is even a NEW variant of FORTRAN called CUDA FOTRAN meant to run, as you almost certainly guessed, on nVidia GPGPUs. developer.nvidia.com/cuda-fortran

As I see it, when any article mentions FORTRAN as an ancient language or technology, I have to question the article itself, and in this case, Jason Chaffetz.

What I think Jason Chaffetz does not realize is that in some cases, updating to the latest "stuff" brings with it all the vulnerabilities of the latest "stuff".
Eikka
not rated yet May 27, 2016
And very likely expose your system to the vulnerabilities of the host.


That depends on what the host actually is and how it is physically connected to the system.

If you create an emulator machine that replicates the physical interface of the original mainframe to the rest of the hardware via an adapter board, the system cannot be exposed to any intrusion the original hardware couldn't be, and it will respond as the original hardware would as long as the virtual machine is made to faithfully reproduce the original, so there's no "backdoor" like exploiting the remote control hardware backdoors present in Intel CPUs - because the relevant interfaces of the hardware are never connected to anything.

The host does not need to run any common operating system, or any operating system at all, to implement a system emulation of the original hardware. Technically it can even be an ASIC implementation of the original on a single chip but that would cost slightly more.
Eikka
5 / 5 (2) May 27, 2016
Of course, modern coders would implement the emulation by loading the host with linux and apache, and making a website that runs javascript or PHP to simulate the original hardware via HTTP requests over an intranet that is also at some point connected to the internet, so they can put a nifty website on the control computer screens that shows a big red button and a password prompt for the launch codes.

Eikka
not rated yet May 27, 2016
If any Govt is so stupid as to let something like this fall into disrepair, society has a major problem.


It's not cynisism or pessimism to think that they are when governments constantly and consistently demonstrate that they cannot handle basic things like social security, health care, or even basic budget balance. Societies do have major problems, and the US is no exception.

Da Schneib
3 / 5 (2) May 27, 2016
so they can put a nifty website on the control computer screens that shows a big red button and a password prompt for the launch codes.
Got a pretty good chuckle out of this.
Da Schneib
5 / 5 (2) May 27, 2016
The parts are also 60 years old because no new replacements are made anymore - it's all stockpiled stuff - which is way beyond their testing envelope and there's no guarantee any of it works anymore when you press the button.
Knowing the Air Force, I doubt it; they probably have a schedule on which they test the spares and rotate them out for repair if they're broken. There are, after all, still people around who know how to fix things with soldering irons and wire wrap guns.
winthrom
not rated yet May 28, 2016
Since almost all hardware now comes from non-US sources (Think China, etc.), and complete computers now come on a single chip (e.g.,smart phones) from overseas, we should not be surprised if we find that these intensely complex chips have bugs in them, possibly even malicious circuits. In the 1980s Intel had to recall the first run of the 8086 because a particular function was giving bad answers. When old, reliable hardware/software gives reliable answers to problems that are go/no-go on a nuclear war, I think conservatism is called for. One very nice feature of the old stuff is that the parts are discrete items that are/were easy to stockpile like a Z80. (Z80s are still manufactured) A CPU was a dual in line 80 pin chip that was in a socket vice a surface soldered flat pack chip that Intel stopped making 10 years ago, and no one else ever made.

That said, replacing floppy disks is a good idea. Use a modern PC to emulate the disks.
Da Schneib
3 / 5 (2) May 28, 2016
Just FYI I worked at a company that was hit by the Intel integer divide bug. And had to change the processors out on two computers I owned at the time (his'n'hers) as well.

Floppy disks are pretty easy to make; that's why they used them so much. You just coat sheets of mylar with magnetic media, cookie-cutter them, and put them in sleeves. If you want to be sure they're good you check them with a verifier.

As long as they keep everything backed up they'll be fine.
xponen
not rated yet May 28, 2016
Just upgrade all the system. The benefit is that data will be much more accessible for analyst, which can be used to advice the government. The negatives is bugs and service interruption, but manageable.

I remember news about NASA's probe called Pioneer; a scientist want to study the telemetry but encounter obstacle like having to decode all the old magnetic tapes.

Also there's another case, also NASA, a filmmaker had to watch all the moon landing film which nobody had seen before, to make a documentary. Old medium is difficult to use.
DirtySquirties
not rated yet May 29, 2016
The government needs to get with the times! They should be connected to the internet and just use a Facebook or Google account to log on to the system. Better yet, buy some smartphones so it can be accessed from almost anywhere and we're golden. Instead of messing around with floppies, those who have control will be able to react immediately if need be.

What could possibly go wrong?
Nik_2213
not rated yet May 29, 2016
Hey, they could be using ZIP drives, with their 'clik-clik-clik of death'...

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.