This short story was first published in System i News, a technical publication that focused on the IBM AS/400, System i, iSeries System.
A slow hum could be heard in the background as life breathed once again into the machines which sat dormant for so many years. The chief engineer was no longer troubled by the rustic conditions and primitive equipment. There were few who understood the technology any longer, and his took pride in his knowledge of both the old and new. The archeologist understood more than he did of the times long ago, when these systems ran a good portion of the world’s top companies. He understood the minds of the men and women who ran them, the cultures in which they lived, and the social conventions of their day. He didn’t understand the hardware however, or the software for that matter. He didn’t understand that the machines too had a soul of sorts. If not a soul, then perhaps, at least a personality of their own.
“How does it look?” the archeologist said nervously.
“Pretty good. The IPL is beginning – their term for a system startup. I say that we have at least an even shot at this” the engineer responded, with the confidence of someone that knew his trade. His tone was reserved enough not to suggest anything more than a good chance. There were no guarantees. He had to recreate several of the components from scratch, but most still worked even after all this time.
The systems had been quiet for so many years, that no one ever expected that they would ever come to life again. But the archeologist had a passion (and influence) matched only by the engineer’s skill.
“What do you think these systems were used for?”
“Could be anything. Business, casinos, government, manufacturing. They were pretty flexible, if limited,” the engineer answered, proud of his peers from a distant age.
“And they saved us during the dark years. At least that’s the way I read the history. Others might disagree, but the evidence is more compelling than ever.”
“By the dark years, you mean The Sprawl.”
The archaeologist nodded. The Sprawl was indeed a dark moment in the collective history of their mutual ancestors. Everyone knew of those years, even if the specifics were known only to a few. Much like the medieval dark ages, those times were shrouded in popular myth. The plagues of those times had a more modern counterpart, the infections and spread during The Sprawl.
Computer power continued to grow at the pace of Moore’s law, but managing the machines had become untenable. Electrical power was taxed, servers were redundant simply because of the likelihood of failure. Eventually all of the nation’s resources were committed to just maintaining the status quo.
It seemed so silly now that man himself was responsible for the near collapse of civilization. Despite the evidence of the coming storm, the problems that were rampant, they raced along towards the edge of disaster with full knowledge of the risks.
Viruses were commonplace and the systems that were infected were only slightly less so. And they were growing. The problem was known, even obvious, but that didn’t make addressing it any the less real. How many other times in history did disaster loom, how many Neros fiddled while their cities burned? Was the trend of mankind to go forward, even when prudence dictated otherwise? Perhaps that was the flaw that doomed fabled Atlantis. But the people of this prior age, at the beginning of the millennia, were no myth. The evidence of their existence surrounded the engineer and the archeologist.
“Dave. I was expecting vacuum tubes and much heavier cables. Or is that wrong?” the archeologist asked. His tone always turned familiar when discussing an area outside his expertise.
“No Cal. Vacuum tubes were used, but not on these systems. They’re from before this time. At least a generation. The storage and cards on these is solid state. This machine is a fairly late model for this iSeries.”
“iSeries? I thought this was an AS/400.”
“Same thing, more or less. I call them that because when I did my first research that was how the manuals referred to them. I’m not sure about why the name changed. Technically this model is Power System running ‘i’. O/S version 26.2 I think.”
The histories were an area where Cal’s knowledge was far more extensive. He didn’t know the technical details, but knew the people, and cultural background.
“Marketing. It was Big Blue’s decision to rebrand the line at different times. It always confused me what they were referring to. I kept seeing documentation with AS400, iSeries, e-server, System I, at different times in history. As late as 2015 I still saw the term AS/400 being used.”
“Marketing? I thought that all marketing for this line of servers was a myth.”
“There were always stories that suggested that there was a marketing campaign. Perhaps there was. If so, it was secret. Like the rites of the masons, or the location of El Dorado.”
“We have a signon screen!” Dave exclaimed.
“Try the user and password we discovered in those manuscripts. QSECOFR” Cal suggested.
“The letter Q might have had some religious significance to these people, like the Ankh has for the Egyptians,” Dave reasoned.
“Perhaps,” Cal responded without conviction, “They certainly had such beliefs. Much of literature of the computer age reads like a battle of religious fervor, and there are plenty of references to the ‘Blue Screen of Death’.”
Dave grinned at the use of a keyboard. They seemed so archaic and the arrangement of the letters was equally amusing. What were they thinking? Still these people managed to produce the earliest internet. and even had some wireless connections. Where had they gone wrong?
A message appeared as Dave hit enter ‘CPF1107 – Password not correct for user profile.’
“I was afraid of this. The password is not the default.”
“Why would it be? That would be a serious security flaw.”
“Now we have to guess. Too many wrong guesses and we could disable the profile. I believe that even with it disabled. we can sign in from this console.”
The pair tried endless combinations of passwords to no avail.
“Surely they would have left some evidence of a password. At the time the system was shutdown, there was no reason to keep it secure,” Cal insisted.
“But there was no reason to care. It had served its purpose. They certainly didn’t envision that future generations would come here to bring it back up.”
The historian and the technician tried all manner of combinations and finally logged in using the password ‘silverlake’.
“What does the log read?”
“It seems that there’s a web service running.”
“An early use of internet access.” Cal’s knowledge of history meant Dave didn’t need to explain the term further.
“If we use a browser we can review their last notes.”
The browser window revealed a personal diary for the last days of the system.
‘If you are reading this then you have survived through our trouble times and our efforts were not in vain. We have been through many trials and tribulations, and survived The Sprawl. Computers servers and their management took over our world, and despite their numbers continued to fail. They crashed, they were infected with viruses. Many were needed to do the simplest of services. It was a dark age. But still we clung on against hope. As the world around us had upheavals our systems ran and ran and ran. Through the night, through upgrades, after so many others had failed our system continued on while their numbers grew.
We cannot be sure why this was only that there seemed to be an invisible hand at work. Our systems were considered ancient, old, and obsolete. They ran without concern, for years sometimes. They ran all manners of software and applications. No protocol exceeded our grasp, no project was beyond our scope, and yet we languished.’
“It seems so odd. What could provoke their leaders to ignore a system so capable?” Dave pondered.
“Airline magazines.” Cal informed him. “Executives read articles on airplanes. and that is how they decided what to do.”
“Really? How odd. Someone could have written a comic strip lampooning that.”
“You would think.”
They continued to read.
As time passed we managed to run accounting, manufacturing, web applications, ftp, ldap, amp, and Domino applications all on the same machine. In cases where that was not practical, we ran them on a different partition using the same hardware. Our systems did not crash and were not susceptible to viruses. We even ran more than one operating system on the same machine, completely independent of each other. Security was built in, not just an afterthought. We even ran additional partitions with other operating systems.
“You mean there were systems where security wasn’t part of the design from the start?” Cal gasped.
“Apparently. And legend tells us for every service, those systems would have a server. Teams of administrators were needed to manage them.”
“Oh, come on. Next you’ll tell me they didn’t test the code all together before releasing it to the customers, or better yet, that the systems weren’t integrated.”
They returned to the text.
But we remained in the minority, ever fighting a rising tide of more numerous, if less capable, systems. The world’s computing infrastructure was rampant with designs that were easily compromised and require their programs to be rewritten with each new chip design. Each new generation was caught in a delay. 64 bit chips on those other machines waited for 64 bit code and 128 bit chips waited for 128 bit code. Our system had no such need. We had TIMI.
“Huh?” Dave exclaimed, “Each new chip required a rewrite of the code? No hardware independence would mean that you be running older code through some sort of emulator of not using the full chip address. Talk about primitive. Why would they use other systems in such large numbers?”
“Product awareness and industry trends. You see, according to the tomes I’ve read, executives would usually consult a company that told you what platforms would be running in 5 or 10 years and then make their decisions based on that,” Cal replied.
“And what about their in-house experts?” Dave askd.
“They ignored them for the most part. They figured if an outside expert charged a lot, they must know what they’re doing,” Cal explained.
“So they must have predicted these machines would last a long time. They weren’t subject to the same rewrite of the code that the other platforms were?” Dave reasoned.
“Actually, no.” Cal corrected him “Every few years ‘experts’ would predict this ‘AS/400’ would be obsolete in another 5 to 8 years. They did this for the greater part of the century. Only those who used the machines bought newer ones.”
“What did they do when the predictions were wrong? Didn’t anyone catch on that they were mistaken?” Dave asked with a shake of his head.
“Then these machines must have been very expensive to run. Only the wealthiest companies could afford them”
“Actually the ‘Total Cost of Ownership’ was less than other machines.”
“Wait, wait. You mean that these people had a computer system that was nearly immune from attack, could run thousands of simultaneous users, dozens of services and applications at once, needed a minimal staff, isolated the programs from technological changes, and actually cost less to run!” Dave burst out.
“That’s what the evidence suggests. In fact, that what made me interested in this part of history. I came across an archive of magazines named News/400 in the Smithsonian. They gave credence to a hypothesis I was forming about mankind’s early computerized society. What we find here may confirm my theory.”
“That theory being?” Dave queried.
“That our entire computerized society is built upon the foundations of these early machines. Without them we would not be here today” Cal responded, confident in his discovery
“Amazing! Do you really think so?” Dave replied with a tone that implied he was willing to believe, but not completely convinced.
“What are your kids’ names? Cal asked.
“Quincy, Quark, and Quinn. But that just because Qs are part of tradition for every other generation.” Dave argued.
“And where do you work. The headquarters I mean?”
“Exactly. While those letters are traditional I think they started with this series of servers. They lasted far longer than anyone suspects today. They survived The Spawl and their remnants live today, powering our world” Cal insisted, “Now I will have proof.”
Dave nodded his head in understanding and continued his work while Cal read through the diaries. Dave had other pressing matters on his mind. He and his wife were planning on having another child and he had many choices to make. There were many processors to choose from, whether to make the child a boy or girl, a righty of a lefty. But now he understood how each of his personal upgrades was possible due to the Technology Independent Machine Interface developed so long ago.
The AS/400 design continued on through the ages and eventually became intelligent computers of a near infinite variety of design. Human people had long ago learned of their ascent from the apes and the variations of early mankind, Neanderthal, Homo erectus, Australopithecus, and others. But the Cro-Magnons survived and flourished. Some Darwinian advantage favored them, and the same was true for the design of the System/38. Evolving slowly through the years TIMI gave an advantage that became the AS/400, the iSeries, the System i, and several other names finally becoming the basis for Dave and Cal. Cal could soon stand respectfully with his human co-workers and discuss his own origins with the same pride they spoke of pre-historic man. For Dave a new child would be his prideful joy and yet another offspring that started from this line of servers so long ago.