This 1958 computer program is still in use today – replacing it would be too expensive
Nowadays, applications for desktops and laptops have given way to mobile applications that flood our smartphones, but the longevity of these solutions is limited, something that leads us to ask ourselves a curious question: What is the oldest software still in use?
The answer leads us to the United States Department of Defense, where in 1958 an application was developed in charge of managing the service contracts for the administration. That program was developed in the veteran COBOL, and it is so complex and crucial that it continues to function today in much the same way as 60 years ago.
Too expensive to replace
The call Mechanization of Contract Administration Services (MOCAS) appeared even a couple of years after COBOL was formally approved as a language. When it began to be used, a screen and keyboard were not even used, but punch cards which were the traditional way of entering data into computers.
That system managed to adapt to the new times … more or less. In the following decades the program was adapted so it will work on “green phosphor” terminals –the color would arrive-, such as those used today by certain airlines, travel agencies, banks or telecommunications companies.
Today MOCAS has been made more usable connecting it to a web interface With which it is possible to control the application, but the system is still absolutely vital: with it 1.3 trillion (with b of a trillion Spanish) of dollars in obligations are managed, and 340,000 contracts. The server it runs on is modest: a IBM 2098 E-10 of 2008 with 8 GB of RAM whose processing power is 398 MIPS.
The United States government keep trying replace this app with a more modern alternative, but past efforts have made that option not feasible at the moment: it would be too costly and any system should overlap its execution perfectly with that of this application to prevent a critical environment like this from having problems.
In fact, it seems that MOCAS is still active: this maintenance contract April 2019 shows what areas should the entity cover or organization that takes care of this maintenance —in a language that is difficult to read and full of acronyms—, which makes us assume that trying to “modernize” MOCAS is being an effectively complex task.
It is another document shows how MOCAS is a tool that is in fact used much more widely than we might think of in large departments of the United States administrative structure.
COBOL and assembler make things difficult
The case of MOCAS is certainly remarkable, but he’s not the only one. The cited COBOL language it is present in other systems that have ended up being too valuable and critical for a migration to other more modern platforms to be feasible or, at least, simple.
In 2020 the governor of the state of New Jersey in the USA, Phil Murphy, publicly announced what COBOL programmers were needed: the pandemic had triggered unemployment, and their old data processing systems they couldn’t with that load. In The New York Times They told how other states like Connecticut with the same problem ended up launching an initiative to try to maintain those old systems.
Something similar they denounced in Federal News Network in October 2020: the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) supports its management in the so-called Individual Master File (IMF), an application programmed in assembler (and some COBOL, of course) in 1960 and that with its 200,000 lines of code it is a critical system.
It is working on a modernization project to port that assembly code to a new platform, and although there was a promising attempt to “translate” that code into Java, the IRS determined that while it would work, it would not work optimally. Now they are doing a kind of artisanal conversion which is still running but is taking a lot of work and time for the IT department of this body.
The space, last frontier?
Although it appeared almost 20 years later, there is at least one other computer program worthy of mention in this review: the one that continues to run today on the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes, launched by NASA in 1977 and are still exploring today areas of space that had never been reached.
Both ships are practically identical even in their set of three computers in which the subsystem of flight data, the one of the command computer and the one of control of “attitude and articulation” is housed. These systems achieve that continue to communicate with the Earth and that the scientific instruments work.
The Voyager probe software has received updates that we could almost qualify as “OTA in a big way”, but these improvements have been reduced, which is logical considering that the memory of these on-board computers was reduced to 70 KB. These probes are expected to continue to function until 2025: around that time they will stop communicating with our planet, but who knows how much longer those programs will continue to function.