The 20 Year Computer

October 10, 2008

This one hasn’t let me go for months.  The idea is to zealously over-engineer the few parts of a computer where almost all failures happen: the power suppy, disks and thermal management components.

Not “hot-swapping” bad parts, but rather just building in the spares it’ll need down the line and forgetting about it.

The point is being able to deploy a bit of software to a site and not be constantly biting your nails about it failing because the computer broke.   There are $2k computers out there controlling $2M machines with a some-hundred a month service contract, which just doesn’t make a lot of sense.  I’m interested in whether there’s a niche out there for $3k computers re-packaged into $15k bunkers that do the exact same thing, but for much longer, unattended.

There’s “cost-effective” and then there’s “trust-effective.”

(A point I forgot to make is that this thing has a slow-clock low-power supervisor computer, with its own mil-spec Vicor power supply and little UPS, that handles the temperature sensing, fan control and power supply switching.  That’s custom, and is invisible to the big “other” computer.)

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4 Responses to “The 20 Year Computer”

  1. Debra-Mistrss of Useless Ideas-Buller Says:

    Ah Craig,

    The idea of doing it right the first time. Engineering for tomorrow, planning on dependability, forgoing planned obsolescence. You are a radical man.

  2. ekpaulson Says:

    A few things — 20 years is not as much of a stretch for standard hardware as you might think. Sad to say, we’ve got an NMR spectrometer at Yale still running off of a 20-year-old Sun SPARC-1 computer (at least it was running earlier today — knock wood).

    Of course, we might be a statistical outlier, and the computer does lock up and need rebooting every so often. Also we replaced some bad RAM chips.

    As far as my experience with old computers goes, it is fans and dust that kills you. If you never shut down, hard disks seem to last pretty well (and having 12 of them as you suggest ought to put the statistics in your favor). If I were trying to design a 20+ year computer, I would get rid of all fans and hermetically seal the insides. Make the entire outer case your heatsink.

  3. craigrmeyer Says:

    > Make the entire outer case your heatsink.

    I’ve seen this done on military stuff, actually. Air is blown around the inside, and there’s a Peltier junction thingieding that trades heat from an interior-facing heat sink to an exterior-facing one.

    Fans and dust. Fans and dust.

    I wonder what it is about the dust? I’ve heard that big hunks of it and hairs and things will conduct electricity, just a little, and short out contacts once in a while. What else could it be about dust that harms the computer, I wonder?

  4. ekpaulson Says:

    >What else could it be about dust that harms the computer, I wonder?

    Dust kills the fans. 🙂

    Maybe a good longshot idea would be to develop a truly dust-proof muffin fan — I know that would solve a majority of the failures and maintenance on our scientific instruments. Perhaps you could build one in a similar manner to an aquarium pump, some form of reluctance motor.


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