When old beats modern (a computer story)

If you asked me to comment on whether an old computer technology could beat modern technology, I’d give the obvious answer: no.

Except my recent explorations with the two have proven that in some cases, the exact opposite is true. In my case, I’ve been playing with a Z80 single board computer whose design is based on a design from the 1970s. It’s a solid design, and the implementation by “CPUville” is awesome.

The only bit of “new” in the system is a wonderful little device known as an IDE to SD card interface. The CPUville Z80 singleboard has an IDE interface and connector which accepts this $10 board, which then accepts a SD card to act as hard disk for the system. It all works, and works exceptionally well. I end up with 4 large hard drives for the Z80, which is running CP/M 2.2

And that is where the magic, and indeed the beating takes place. No, the Z80 is not faster than a modern computer. It’s much, much slower. But CP/M was an almost fully realized operating system with a rich user community and a lot of available software, and that is where the difference lies in what I do.

I love writing programs, and especially in the older languages – FORTRAN, C and now PL/I. I used PL/I in my very first job in 1980 and 1981 in an IBM mainframe shop, and quite enjoyed it.

On other systems, getting compilers has been difficult, but for CP/M 2.2 there are extremely good compilers for FORTRAN (Microsoft’s F80), C (High Tech C) and now PL/I (Digital Equipment’s version). What is even more wonderful, they all work very well and compile my old programs nicely.

Of course there are quirks and things one must learn (or re-learn) but it’s all fun.

Which brings me to the “beats modern” part of this post. You see, at this moment I can’t compile C programs on my Windows 7 PC. I try, but the compiler I’m using (MinGW) is 32 bit and my version of Win7 is pure 64 bit, and the two currently hate each other. I know that I will eventually fix the problem, but I’m not in a hurry because I have several Linux boxes plus a Macbook, so I have C compilers available.

Getting FORTRAN was a bit tougher, but eventually I found a nice set of FORTRAN compilers for the Windows machine that work well. But with PL/I I’ve currently hit a wall.

I found a Linux PL/I compiler, but the archive is broken (unreadable). I cannot find a PL/I compiler for Win7.

But equally interesting is the fact that getting the compiler running on the Z80 CP/M system was just … easier. Essentially, the three compilers not only “just work”, they all tend to work in very similar ways. I have a good manual for FORTRAN, plus one for C, so I was able to get going quickly. But I have no PL/I manual for using it. I have a PL/I programming manual, but not one for ‘how to compile & link’. What is really cool is that knowing how to compile & link with FORTRAN and C, I just type the same commands into PL/I and it worked. I’m sure there are options I don’t know about, but basic operations are working fine.

And I’m loving it. Now if only I could get all these tools working as well on my other platforms.

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