December 12 2023

How to spend time with useless (or almost) useless hobbies if you are a Nerd systems engineer who loves retrocomputing.

Technological Hobbies for Nerd Systems Engineers: Combining passion and profession in a journey of creativity and technological innovation that is not always useful, but never useless.


Nerd systems engineers, with their passion for technology and retrocomputing, have unique and fascinating ways to spend their free time. This article explores, in a light and curious way, how a nerdy systems engineer who loves retrocomputing can immerse himself in apparently obsolete but incredibly stimulating pastimes. Worlds such as OpenVMS, AS/400, Plan 9, Inferno and COBOL will be explored, demonstrating that what may seem 'useless' to an outside eye, in reality, reveals a profound passion and technological knowledge.

Studying OpenVMS and VAX


OpenVMS, originally known as VMS (Virtual Memory System), is an advanced operating system introduced in the late 70s by Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC). Designed specifically for the powerful VAX (Virtual Address Extension) architecture, OpenVMS stands out for its exceptional memory management and multitasking capabilities. This operating system has earned a reputation for extraordinary reliability and stability, becoming a mainstay in the operations of large organizations and institutions.

One of the most salient features of OpenVMS is its robust security architecture. This system has been designed with a number of built-in security mechanisms, making it a preferred choice for critical business environments where data protection and continuity of operations are paramount. Additionally, OpenVMS was one of the first operating systems to support system-level clustering, allowing enterprises to build distributed, resilient computing infrastructures.

The VAX architecture

DEC's VAX series was a family of superminicomputers that marked an era in computing. These systems were known for their impressive ability to handle large amounts of virtual memory, a feature that made them extremely versatile and powerful. The VAX architecture was an industry milestone for its innovative architecture, which included a rich and powerful instruction set capable of handling a wide range of computational operations.


The widespread use of VAX and OpenVMS in scientific, academic and business fields is a testament to their versatility and power. These systems were particularly suited for database and transaction management applications, where their processing capabilities and reliability were vital. Universities and research centers relied on VAX for their complex scientific calculations, while companies leveraged its capabilities to manage critical business operations, from financial transactions to logistics.

OpenVMS and the VAX architecture represent a significant era in the evolution of computing. Their impact goes beyond simply providing computational capacity; they provided the foundation on which many modern computing practices were built, indelibly shaping the business and scientific IT landscape.

The Application System/400, better known as AS/400, is a revolutionary hardware and software platform that IBM introduced in 1988. This system was designed to offer an integrated solution that combines hardware capabilities with an advanced operating system, OS/ 400, and a set of application software. The versatility and innovation of the AS/400 made it a pioneering system in its time, pushing the boundaries of enterprise computing.

Study OS/400 and AS 400


The heart of the AS/400 is its operating system, OS/400. This operating system is known for its robustness and security, offering a reliable environment for running a wide range of business applications. One of the distinctive features of OS/400 is its ability to support several programming languages, including RPG, COBOL, C++, and Java, making it extremely flexible and suitable for different usage scenarios.

OS/400 also stood out for its object-oriented architecture and native integration with the DB2 database, offering efficient and powerful data management. This integration has simplified application development and maintenance, reducing implementation costs and time.

AS/400: A Long-Lasting Platform in the Corporate World

Despite its age, AS/400 remains a critical platform in many business environments, especially in industries such as finance, manufacturing and distribution. Its durability over time is due to its extraordinary reliability and its ability to evolve with business needs. IBM has continued to develop and support the platform, renaming it IBM iSeries and, more recently, IBM System i, to reflect its expansive capabilities and evolution.

Compatibility with legacy applications is another key aspect of the AS/400. Many enterprise systems built in the 80s and 90s are still in operation today, thanks to AS/400's ability to run these applications without significant modification. This allowed companies to protect their software investment and avoid costly and risky migration projects.


In conclusion, IBM's AS/400 represents a piece of history in enterprise computing, demonstrating how a well-designed platform can remain relevant and useful for decades. Studying AS/400 offers not only a perspective on the history of computing, but also insights into the development, maintenance, and management of robust and durable information systems in a business context.

Plan 9 from Bell Labs was born in the late 80s as an ambitious research and development project. This operating system was conceived by the same team of talented engineers who had developed Unix, one of the most influential operating systems of all time. Plan 9 was conceived as a spiritual successor to Unix, with the aim of overcoming some of its limitations and expanding the frontiers of computing. The vision behind Plan 9 was for a highly connected, distributed operating system that could maximize the potential of expanding networks and emerging hardware.

Studying Plan9

One of Plan 9's major innovations lay in its approach to resource and service management. The operating system implemented a model in which everything from files to input/output devices were represented as a file in a distributed file system. This unified model greatly simplified programming and interaction with the system, allowing for greater flexibility and scalability.

Plan9 Operational System

Plan 9 also introduced new concepts in networking and inter-process communication, leveraging innovative protocols such as 9P, which allowed efficient and transparent communication between different machines in a network. These characteristics made Plan 9 particularly suitable for distributed computing environments and for the creation of complex applications that required close collaboration between different processing units.

From the Laboratory to the Open-Source Community

Despite these innovations, Plan 9 never achieved the popularity of Unix in the commercial market. However, its value and impact have been recognized in academic and research circles. After years of development and internal use at Bell Labs, Plan 9 was made available to universities in 1992, allowing scholars and researchers to explore its potential.

In 1995, AT&T, the parent company of Bell Labs at the time, attempted to commercialize Plan 9, but without much success. However, the real leap in quality came in 2000, when Plan 9 was released under an open-source license. This move allowed for wider diffusion and adoption of the system, giving rise to a community of enthusiasts and developers who continued to explore and develop its innovative ideas.

Legacy and Impact in the World of Computing

Today, Plan 9 is recognized more for its cultural and technological impact than for its practical diffusion. His ideas and concepts inspired the development of other operating systems and networking technologies. Additionally, Plan 9 continues to be a fascinating field of study for those interested in the evolution of operating systems and wanting to understand how innovative ideas can influence long-term technological development.

In conclusion, studying Plan 9 offers a unique perspective on innovation in the field of operating systems and how advanced ideas can challenge and influence established practices in computer science. For fans of technology and the history of computing, Plan 9 represents an intriguing and inspiring chapter in the history of computing.

Studying Hell

No, we are not talking about Dante's Inferno and the Divine Comedy. Although inspired by it, Inferno represents a significant milestone in the operating system landscape, developed with the specific objective of facilitating the development and management of distributed applications. Born in the research laboratories of Bell Labs, the same fertile ground that gave birth to Unix and Plan 9, Inferno stood out for its innovative architecture and its adaptability. The system has been designed to operate both in hosted mode, i.e. within other operating systems, and in native mode on a wide range of hardware architectures, demonstrating exceptional flexibility.

Innovation in Networking and Resource Management: The Styx Protocol

One of Inferno's key innovations is the introduction of the Styx protocol, a communications system that allows uniform and transparent access to resources, whether they are located locally or distributed across a network. Styx, derived and refined from Plan 9's 9P protocol, was designed to simplify communication in distributed environments, making the system extremely efficient and versatile. This unified approach to resource management is a hallmark of Inferno, facilitating the creation of complex, scalable distributed systems.

Limbo Programming Language: Security and Portability

Another core element of Inferno is its dedicated programming language, Limbo. Limbo is a type-safe language, meaning it imposes strict controls on data types, increasing security and reducing the likelihood of programming errors. A notable aspect of Limbo is its universal binary representation, which allows programs written in Limbo to run on any platform without modification. This feature makes Limbo a powerful and flexible tool for developing distributed applications, as it ensures that the code is portable and easily executable in different environments.

Limbo uses just-in-time (JIT) compilation techniques, allowing for greater efficiency in code execution. This approach combines the benefits of static compilation with the flexibility of interpretation, optimizing application performance.

Applications and Impact of Inferno in the World of Computing

Inferno has proven to be particularly suitable for the development of distributed services and applications, such as telecommunications systems, network services and Internet applications. Its ability to operate on different hardware platforms and its network-oriented architecture have opened up new possibilities in distributed software development. Despite not achieving widespread commercial adoption, Inferno has left an indelible mark on the field of distributed computing, influencing the development of technologies and concepts that underpin many modern applications today.

Inferno's study offers an in-depth perspective on the evolution of operating systems and application development in distributed environments. Understanding its innovations and quirks provides an important lesson in designing and implementing operating systems and programming languages ​​that can adapt to an ever-changing technological landscape. For retrocomputing enthusiasts and those interested in the history and future of distributed computing, Inferno represents an intriguing chapter full of lessons.

Studying COBOL


COBOL, an acronym for Common Business-Oriented Language, is a programming language that has played a fundamental role in the development of computing since its inception in the 50s. Created with the aim of standardizing programming for business applications, COBOL has established itself as one of the most popular languages ​​for software development in banking, insurance, administration and other sectors where the management of large volumes of data is essential . Its design was aimed at being understandable and accessible, with a syntax close to natural language, thus facilitating learning and use by programmers not specialized in technical fields.

Why COBOL is Still Relevant Today

Although technological evolution has introduced more modern and versatile programming languages, COBOL continues to maintain a crucial role in many organizations. Its continued relevance is primarily due to the vast amount of legacy code written in COBOL that is still in operation today, especially in critical systems such as banking, insurance, government, and healthcare. These systems, often dated but incredibly stable and reliable, perform essential functions that support daily operations of enormous proportions.

COBOL in Legacy Systems

The relevance of COBOL in legacy systems is particularly significant. Many of these systems were built decades ago and continue to function effectively, thanks to the stability and reliability of the language. Maintaining and updating these systems requires in-depth knowledge of COBOL, as rewriting or replacing such large and complex code would be an expensive and risky undertaking. As a result, there is a constant demand for COBOL programmers capable of managing, updating and improving these critical systems.

Studying COBOL: Looking to the Future Through the Past

Studying COBOL is not just an exercise in understanding the history of computing; it is also a way to acquire valuable and increasingly rare skills in the modern technological landscape. Understanding COBOL provides a unique insight into the basic principles of enterprise computing and offers an opportunity for those interested in careers in legacy information systems maintenance.

Furthermore, the study of COBOL provides crucial insights into the evolution of programming languages ​​and the challenges associated with managing long-lived information systems. For software engineers and IT specialists, knowing COBOL means having the ability to dialogue with an important part of computing history and actively contribute to its future evolution.

In conclusion, COBOL remains a cornerstone of modern computing, despite its age. Its pervasive presence in critical systems around the world makes the study of this language not only a matter of historical interest, but a practical and relevant skill. For anyone interested in exploring the roots of modern computing or pursuing a career in IT, COBOL represents a field of study full of unique opportunities and challenges.


The exploration of hobbies by systems nerds, especially those with an interest in retrocomputing and advanced technology, proves to be a challenging and learning-filled journey. In addition to offering a break from the daily demands of work, these hobbies allow you to deepen your technological understanding, express your creativity, and develop new skills.

From restoring vintage hardware to building custom PCs, from immersing yourself in the world of retro gaming to actively participating in the open source software community, each hobby offers a unique window into the vast universe of technology. They allow not only to reconnect with the historical roots of information technology, but also to keep up with the most recent developments. Through these pastimes, systems engineers can directly experience the joy and challenges of technological innovation.

Additionally, these hobbies provide opportunities for social and professional networking, connecting systems engineers with communities of people who share similar interests, each activity opening the door to new friendships, collaborations, and even career opportunities.

Ultimately, these hobbies aren't just a way to spend your free time; they are also a means to enrich professional skills, to inspire future innovations and to contribute to the global technology community. For nerdy systems engineers, adopting one or more of these hobbies represents a step forward in their personal and professional journey, combining passion and profession in a dynamic and rewarding balance.

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