Windows

Supporting DOS machines

I have a couple of DOS computers that I might consider, out of sight, out of mind. When one of them failed, however, its function was quick to remind me of its presence and importance. Here's my tale. And perhaps you'll take the poll: Do you still support any DOS machines?

I have a couple of DOS computers that I might consider to be out of sight, out of mind. When one of them failed, however, its function was quick to remind me of its presence and importance. Here's my tale. And perhaps you'll take the poll -- Do you still support any DOS machines?

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It's locked up in an obscure closet, but this particular 200 MHz Pentium serves a vital function for our company. It runs the software and houses the hardware that provides the voicemail and automatic routing for our telephone system. I know what you're probably thinking -- it must be a pretty antiquated phone system to have a computer that old serving as the brains behind it. But considering the extremely high cost of new phone systems, along with the old adage "if it ain't broke, don't fix it," it might be easy to understand why that old computer is still humming away in the closet.

It's been a long time since we made the DOS to Windows 95 leap, so I don't remember the exact circumstances, but I seem to recall that the software running on that DOS computer wasn't compatible with Windows, and in order to update the software, we would have had to update much more of the overall phone system, so we just let it be. That would make sense, I suppose, because I remember a lot of applications back then came with both the DOS version and a Windows version, and one couldn't be installed on the other's system. In this case, all we have is a DOS version. Moreover, the phone card is inserted into an ISA slot, something that's not normally seen anymore.

I said that this computer was pretty much out of sight, out of mind, but one person does access that closet on a somewhat regular basis. It serves as a storage room for our office manager, and she also accesses that DOS computer twice a year to set the computer's time to be consistent with daylight savings changes. As such, the time display on our phones doesn't change until she manually changes the time on the computer. On a couple of occasions she's told me of noises coming from the box, and a quick replacement of the processor fan quieted it back down. Otherwise, it's been serving its purpose just fine.

Not too long ago, however, the entire voicemail and auto-routing features of our phone system were suddenly unavailable. The phones worked, but that was all. After a quick visit to the telephone closet, I discovered that the computer was off and it wouldn't turn back on. It was as dead as a doornail (see note below). That told me it was, most likely, either a bad power supply or a bad motherboard. It ended up being a failed motherboard -- an Asus SP97-V. (Those things are going for $135 - $200 on eBay!)

I knew there was a reason I kept some of those old computers under my counter -- other than functioning as an additional shelf or a footrest, that is. I actually had (and still have) several old Pentium computers, extra motherboards, some extra 1.6 GB hard drives (Maxtor 71626A), some 64, 128, and 256 MB SIMMS, some AT power supplies, and other miscellaneous parts and pieces. Anyway, a quick replacement of the motherboard was all it needed to be back up and running -- about a 30-minute task.

It made me remember the days of Windows 95, and how a computer would have had an absolute hissy fit after a motherboard replacement -- detecting one device after another and requiring a reboot after each and every one, only to be unstable for the rest of its computing life (or until Windows 95 was reinstalled from scratch). But not with DOS. It didn't care. It booted up correctly the first time without a problem, and everything was back to normal.

That particular DOS computer has to be at least 12 years old by now, maybe older, and it's running 24/7. I wonder how long it will last?

Anyway, how about you? Take the poll. Do you support any old DOS machines? If so, please tell us your tale in the following discussion.

Note: Do you know where the expression "dead as a doornail" came from? According to World Wide Words:

The Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins quote a correspondent who points out that it could come from a standard term in carpentry. If you hammer a nail through a piece of timber and then flatten the end over on the inside so it can't be removed (a technique called clinching), the nail is said to be dead, because you can't use it again. Doornails would very probably have been subjected to this treatment to give extra strength in the years before screws were available. So they were dead because they'd been clinched. It sounds plausible, but whether it's right or not we will probably never know.

67 comments
oldbaritone
oldbaritone

Those DOS VoiceMail systems aren't dinosaurs - they're not extinct. There's still a LOT of them around. Some manufacturers still have ISA-only proprietary VM interface cards, and the hard drives still have "fingerprints" to allow the system to run! I've been through it a couple of times - when the system box goes, it's easy to swap in another dinosaur-junker, but when a hard drive goes, if there's no backup, you're toast! (and NOBODY backs up the VM system) If you have a chance during a planned outage, pull the VM hard drive and make a full image of it on another machine. Most of these systems are less than 200 MB, and with DOS it can't be more than 2 GB - so make a binary image of the drive and store it on a DVD - so you can restore it to a "new-old" drive if the HD goes. (just leave it inside the DOS box) And some modern backup tools can recognize the "fingerprint" and store it properly. (try to restore to another junker drive and boot it) I've had it work a couple of times, and customers were happy that the system could be back up running so quickly. BTW, many phone systems are still in the "dark ages" - you connect to them with ProComm at 9600, 1200, even 300 baud on a TTY-only programming interface! - even dial-in on a 103J (300 baud) modem (I'm old enough to remember when 9600 was FAST!) ;-)

NickNielsen
NickNielsen

It's a POS system in a Mom & Pop convenience store. This is a private client, my first, and the only one still using DOS. They are running out of spare parts for their 486DX, however, so sometime this year they are planning on buying a new PC and updating their POS software. We're discussing the operating system now. It will be a Linux distro or WinXP; they've already said they don't want Vista. A year or so ago, I built a "Learning Linux" box that multiple-boots Ubuntu, Open SuSE, Gentoo, Mint, Mandriva, PCLinuxOS, and FreeBSD. I set it up in their back room, added XP, and installed various freeware and shareware (demo) POS systems for both Linux and Windows so they can learn, evaluate and choose. I'm also playing with DOSbox in case they decide to stay with their current software. I think they're doing the "evaluation" to give me one last chance to play; their accountant is pushing them toward XP and Quickbooks POS. :D

sarockhill
sarockhill

I still keep some around to help test or fix customer units that are still running spaghetti basic programs that were written for a company and I use to keep one around to run condensed holiday labels each year that their computers couldn?t. Besides one of the oldest DOS operation systems is running still below Windows and still works the best for fixing errors in hard drives. Had to make a replacement 386 for a company that moved and upgraded everything forgetting that the 386 in the basement wouldn't run on anything faster with support software written just for them.

consultas
consultas

I grew up with DOS, forms of Unix, BASIC etc.. One of my machines (19 years old) is running DOS for maintenance of other machines (remember Norton Commander?) so I still can use DOS commands on other machines also. When XP or 2000 cannot be repaired with "Last known good", all I have to do is boot via a DOS floppy on that machine, go to ERDNT and re-install a (daily automatic) backup of the Registry. Smooth and fast. Saved my skin many times. Easier and faster than a "Live" Linux CD. Long live DOS!

AV .
AV .

I have to laugh. I thought I might be the only one out there with an antiquated voice mail system. Our voice mail is still running on a Pentium 75mhz. I have 3 other PCs just like it that I've used for parts over the years. I remember replacing the power supply a couple of years ago and praying it would come back up. It did, because DOS is a beautiful thing. We're in the process of finally replacing that system, but it worked well for almost 15 years. AV

ashokk
ashokk

For the last 18 years am still supporting DOS PCs running in our Office (maybe thats the reasnon i am still employed) and the users also love the Data Entry Speed insted of moving the mouse to click. As of PC we still have 486's & PentiumI

Randy Hagan
Randy Hagan

Windows and MacOS, but I haven't touched, much less supported, a exclusively DOS system since 1988. Even if you count booting up into ancient Windows, I haven't touched DOS outside of a Windows Command Prompt shell since Win95. It's cool that y'all who are playing with those relics are having fun. I started with DOS in 1983. Crimony, have I been at this that long? But DOS is ancient history ... and that's definitely a good thing.

jereg
jereg

Our business is run entirely on a DOS application. When I was hired 9 years ago, they said we would be migrating to the Windows version. Well, not yet. We have 70 users at 5 locations all running this DOS database. It's gotten increasingly difficult to make current hardware and Windows software function, yet I manage. Fortunately I'm over 50 and started in the industry supporting DOS computers. I've been seeing these same issues for years. This could be the year we move up to the Windows version but if not, we'll keep using what we have.

inlabor
inlabor

I clicked 'other' because, although I have and use a DOS program, I do it on my regular Windows box. That said, Alpha4 v6 and the app I wrote for it in 1992, is still a part of my daily computing activity.

B3_Nick
B3_Nick

I have two of them at my house: One is used to control lights and HVAC; the other is used for programing in Clarion and dBASE III! They are both Tandon PCs, 640k, 40mHz, with old Matrix math co-processors. Other than compiling and linking, they are both blindingly FAST! funny what you can get done when you don't have a GUI and 5,000 device drivers running in the background! :-(

bkindle
bkindle

I had a customer who had to replace a system that was running a DOS application that controlled the monetary functions and operational functions of an entire laundrymat. The system just croaked one day and I had to rebuild it from scratch. Thank goodness for Ghost (used it to transfer data to a new disk). The new software was running Linux and only on particular hardware. The customer didn't want to fork the cash for a complete replacement system. This was one of the most interesting jobs I did last year.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...but finding a decent motherboard with an ISA slot if and when it goes down. Fortunately, well-treated motherboards rarely fail. It's usually power supplies and hard disks, which are quickly and easily replaced.

Juan Ferzara
Juan Ferzara

Oh yes... the good ol?days when all that you need to upgrade was a XCOPY C: D: /s and replace C: with D: Sigh! The memories.

pardeek
pardeek

because I'm supporting win98 machines running DOS apps. Have to spend a lot of time in the environment variables and config.sys to keep everything running.

benj.br
benj.br

I voted "Other", because I know how useful a DOS machine can be. On the other hand, you don't necessarily have to use old hardware, which will make it even more unstable. If you ever migrate to current technology, a replacement like this one wouldn't take more than 30 minutes either, if you are replacing the exact same hardware.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I have the licenses so they get to live on in my OS collection. Dos and win3.11. If anyone knows of a TCP/IP stack and NIC driver that will work with VMware's emulated network card, I'd be interested to hear about it.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

With smaller capacity hard drives available for the cost of a decent lunch out, what I do is clone the system to another drive and leave that drive on-site. That way, when the inevitable happens, it's an easy 5-minute swap.

deepsand
deepsand

Only difference is that they've a built-in modem.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

My understanding is that win98 was the last version to have a true Dos running behind it. Everything from NT is the NT kernel. When you open cmd.com or command.com, your working within an emulated environment.

service
service

In our case we support a video store that is still using a video rental application written in DB IV. It WILL run in a Window but its slow (even in a new dual core machine) and setting up the printer (parallel) is a pain because the software wants to print directly to a line printer as opposed to using the Windows spooler. I've made it work but if there were any way around it I swear I'd do it free of charge. The store owners aren't willing to upgrade the software to a Windows version so we're still using their > 10 year old database. I'd trade in Windows (any flavour) in a snap for DOS if I had a choice. Guess I might be showing my age...I'd better stop now...

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

It seems to be getting a lot of use in embedded systems like Point of Sale machines and similar what with being such ancient history. I hear MS is still selling fresh licenses for such uses. Other people seem to indicate that it's not such ancient history for business needs either.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

Sometimes it's nice to use a computer that takes less than 5 minutes to reboot, and just runs forever without having to be constantly patched and updated.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Dos rigs on today's network speeds must at least be a nice change. No 28.8bps data dumps from remote sites and such.

n.gurr
n.gurr

http://www.ibase.com.tw/ Ibase are a manufacturer of industrial motherboards. When I last looked about a year ago they still did P4 boards with ISA.

dstefun
dstefun

We still have a DOS P200 desktop running a wire marking machine (with 2 identical PC's in storage just in case) and 2 dual boot DOS\Windows laptops running a 1994 vendor serial diagnostics program for a piece of aircraft equipment. The software has never been updated in 15 years and won't run in a DOS window but dual boot works just fine.

jim
jim

A long time ago there was a product called MSDOS client for Windows Networks. I used it many a times to make a print server out of a DOS machine. There was a TCP/IP stack and Microsoft used to sell it. Of course like all things DOS there is no one at Microsoft that even knows how to spell it, much less sell it. Still have the original disk, somewhere, as a matter of fact.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I boot the VM and wait for the standard POST tests and stats.. then I'm at a dos prompt. I remember taking hours fine tuning the config files for minimum bot time with maximum memory and hardware support. Long gone are the days of minute boot times.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

I don't remember any DOS TCP/IP stacks. I'm sure there had to be at least a couple.

deepsand
deepsand

Cheap & easy, assuming that the client can be convinced of the former.

deepsand
deepsand

Under ME, access to [i]real mode[/i] DOS was restricted, making it unsuitable for many older applications. Win 2K (NT 5 renamed) was last of independent NT series. With XP, the "home" and "professional" series merged, sharing a common NT kernel.

cubeslave
cubeslave

I remember having a customer that had to connect their DOS boxes to their two Sun machines. Unless you had a really impressive machine (for back then) you had to load just enough of the stack to get the functions you needed without using up too many resources.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I have win3.11 in place though I can't yet use any of it's network support either. I think I've seen a tcp/ip stack for dos but that still leaves me without a VMware network card driver unless I need the dos driver for my physical card. It's one of my little bonzai trees among the OS collection though so I'm just seeing how much of my old dos machines I can recreate in it.

deepsand
deepsand

The only downside is that, sometimes, someone, by either choice or necessity, balances their books by reducing their expenditures elsewhere in a manner that negatively impacts other work that one was doing, or would have been doing, for them.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...that you can't save everyone from themselves. Just be happy that they'll be willing to pay whatever it takes to clean up the preventable mess when it inevitably happens.

deepsand
deepsand

There are those who find it difficult to accept that a penny spent today may save a dollar tomorrow. As long as they understand that they can either pay now, or pay me more later, it's fine with me; they can't say that they didn't know.

JohnMcGrew
JohnMcGrew

...since few things strike the hearts of receptionists and office managers deeper than the idea of the phone system or voice mail being down for more than an a few minutes. It's a sin that dealing with Windows machines can't be that simple.

deepsand
deepsand

Many of such owed to the particular CPU employed, and which mode it was operated in, which in turn affected real memory access. The use of extended and expanded memory, along with various DOS extenders, led to a bewildering number of problems with certain BASIC commands beginning as far back as Win/286 & Win/386. These problems owed, not to MS-DOS itself being "sandboxed," but to the fact that the CPU was no longer running in real mode.

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

the "MS-DOS mode" in SE and ME were still behind the kernel - "in a sandbox" to use current terminology. One of the ways Windows detected the need for DOS mode was watching the I/O, but it monitored the use of "ON COM(n)" for the serial port. Programs that used PEEK(x) an POKE(x,y) didn't work reliably any more in ME or SE.

deepsand
deepsand

Actually, both boot mode and command mode were user controllable. Boot to Real Mode Command Prompt could be had by holding down F8 at Boot. The DOS Box mode could be set by creating a shortcut to command.com, and using the Advanced button on the Properties/Program tab to change the mode from the default of "Suggest MS-DOS mode as necessary" to "MS-DOS mode."

oldbaritone
oldbaritone

98SE was when real-mode was crippled at boot and ntvdm-style kernel control took hold. I was supporting proprietary barcode scanners that communicated on the serial port (using BASIC POKE), and the problems began when they replaced a Win95 system with 98SE. At that time, you could still boot to a "real" DOS command prompt, which was disabled in ME. But that's how I found out - because the communications worked fine in DOS mode but not in a DOS box under 98SE. ME was just a new coat of paint on 98SE, released for "the Y2K bug"

deepsand
deepsand

There was a time when I knew neither the meaning nor spelling of "curmudgeon;" now, ...

deepsand
deepsand

Mission critical app, developed for DOS on Win 95, and old Win 95 box became arthritic. Had 98 SE box available, making choice a no brained, as app in question is a dog on XP.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I used win98sr2 for so long after ME went away that I keep forgetting it amongst the versions. Cheers, good to be reminded of when the Dos back end started to fade.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I can remember customizing boot diskettes to get just the minimum hardware support with maximum memory to run the specific game. Sounds like your in the same boat with the network stack and minimum resources dedicated to it to get the NFS share connected without eating the rest of the resources.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

Just giving it a go is much more than enough. Thank you for that.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

Sorry, I played around with it for a couple of hours but I couldn't get it to work. I must be thinking of something else.

Neon Samurai
Neon Samurai

I considered digging through the driver disk for my motherboard to see if there is an old nic.sys hidden on it somewhere but I don't know if it would support the VMware layer or if I would need a VMware specific one. I'm reading through a VMware forum thread and another from Virtualbox from on one of the other responses. It's a casual hobby puzzle so not critical if it doesn't turn up or I don't get time to look at it right away.

rbackus
rbackus

There are still a lot of ways to get networking going in DOS. They all boil down to finding a packet driver for your network card, and then running a network stack on it. WATTCP and NOS are probably the most active still.

JackOfAllTech
JackOfAllTech

I think I got Windows for Workgroups working with Trumpet under DosBox about a year ago. Let me see if I can do it again this weekend.

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