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    The Reliability Revolution

    Posted by Charles Gray on March 28, 2017

    We like to talk about technology in terms of the new and shiny. This computer can render things down to the molecule. This car has… an autopilot.
    But in all of that hype, laypeople and sci-fi writers alike miss another, likely far more important technological revolution.

    Reliability, or the growing of the Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF).

    For example, in the 1950s, MIT’s Whirlwind computer had an MTBF of about eight hours. What that would translate out to would be a computer that would be lucky to make it through a single workday. Then you get the interns running around with shopping carts loaded with vacuum tubes.

     

    640px-colossusrebuild_12

    Just imagine the poor guy in charge of fixing that.

    Today, your average laptop or desktop will have a MTBF measured in years. I’ve replaced far more computers because they became obsolete than because they failed. The same goes for cars— oh, we moan about the good old days, but today’s cars are more reliable than their predecessors were— they’re just a bit more expensive to fix, and major problems usually aren’t fixable by the owner. I overhauled the engine for my 1967 Dodge Dart— couldn’t do that with my 2013 Mazda.

    But on the whole, we spend less time fixing stuff today than we ever have, and that’s a tremendous revolution. The first computers weren’t just limited by the initial expense, but by the ongoing process of keeping them running. Most computer purchases in the 1950s and 1960s came complete with long-term maintenance contracts because you knew the beast was going to die.

    Okay, Jake, you tell the President what happened to the plan to eradicate world hunger.

    Today, that’s unusual short of some outside events like a disgruntled employee with a fire axe or a really cutting edge system.
    The fact that we can say malfunctions have become unusual, something we talk about, is a sign of just how incredibly this unsung technology of reliability has progressed, and one of the reasons advanced technology has become so ubiquitous.  After all, how many computer would you have if they broke down every day.

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