This past week the Arecibo radio telescope collapsed, with cables and instruments falling into the massive dish. You can see images of the devastation, which saddens me. I doubt this will be rebuilt, though one can keep hope alive. there were reports of failures a month or so ago, with the intent to shut down the telescope, remove instruments, and institute a controlled demolition.
The facility was featured in a few movies, notably GoldenEye and Contact. The latter is one that first showed me the telescope, which I first thought was a movie magic trick. When I found out this was a real facility, I was amazed that humans could conceive and build such a structure. Even more amazing is that it was built in the 1960s.
That’s quite a lifetime for a piece of technology. While I’m sure lots of wiring, electronics, computer systems, and more were added or upgraded, the core of this telescope remained the same. The ongoing engineering effort, fitting new capabilities around legacy systems and structures, was likely a study that many would find interesting.
I don’t know many database systems that have survived that long, but certainly there are some long lived legacy applications. The Sabre reservation system for airlines is one that stands out to me. The history of this one is fascinating, especially as it’s a system I’ve depended on in my travels.
Many of us that work with databases likely feel that everything we do is a legacy system. The dependencies our objects have on various applications, scripts, reports, and more can limit how much repair, improvement, or replacement we can make to schema.
There are good techniques for modifying our objects, and helping to ensure we don’t break systems, but we often do need some cooperation and collaboration with application developers to implement those changes. Much of DevOps avoids talking about the database, but we shouldn’t. Instead, we ought to embrace database refactoring patterns, both at the database and application levels, ensuring that our systems can survive for as long as we need them while adapting to the changing requirements of our clients.