A look inside the Department of Energy’s computer closet

Oldest Computer Project reveals that the DOE’s mostly modern inventory still has a hundred machines over a decade old

Written by Allan Lasser
Edited by JPat Brown

In February, I filed a few requests to different agencies asking for their “hardware inventory reports,” after having some slight success with this language in previous requests. Unfortunately, most replied that my request was either too vague or they didn’t maintain that kind of record.

A few weeks ago, however, I did receive a response from the Department of Energy, listing all the computer hardware they currently have in their headquarters office. Although it took the agency about half a year to respond to my request, I’ll give them a pass. Not only did they return a complete listing of all the computer hardware they currently have in their headquarters,

but they even sent me an Excel version of the data after I asked for it.

To be clear from the outset, this spreadsheet doesn’t just include computers. It also includes hardware like “Facsimile,” “Drive, Jazz, External,” and “Organizer, Electronic.”

So with that in mind, let’s jump into the data.

With this digital copy, we can ask some simple questions against their inventory and get answers very quickly. For example, what’s the oldest computer in their office? According to the data it’s an IBM PS/2 Model 70 acquired on January 1, 1945.

I find this very hard to believe for a couple reasons. For starters, this computer wasn’t released until 1988.

Additionally, a computer acquired in 1945 would break the previous record for the first commercially purchased computer, set by the Census Bureau. So, let’s start counting at the first date we know for sure: 1991.

From ’91 to ’94, there’s only a few machines still on hand. That number jumps up in ’95 (perhaps coinciding with the release of Windows 95?). Post-’95 the acquisition numbers fall off again and don’t bounce back up to a significant value until 2002. Overall, however, this paints a picture of a surprisingly modern bureaucracy. The vast majority of machines have been acquired between 2009 and 2015, meaning they’re running fairly modern software (Windows 7 released in 2009) and inoculated against most malware.

How do I know they’re mostly running Windows? Well, looking at the data by manufacturer tells a predictable tale of enterprise computing. Acquisitions from Hewlett Packard and RIM/Blackberry make up just about half of all the hardware they have on hand. Another quarter is shared between Dell and Cisco. The last quarter is a blend of other vendors, including a significant number of Apple machines.

When looking at acquisitions by manufacturer by year, a little more detail comes into focus. Most Apple acquisitions occur from 2011-15, growing 50% from 27 in 2010 to 132 in 2011. The number of Blackberry acquisitions peaks in 2013 at 713 and falls to 124 in 2015. Hewlett Packard acquisitions grow at a steady clip each year, with 1903 made in 2015.

I’d be interesting to see what contracts or purchasing systems the DOE has set up with Hewlett Packard, as well as if any have been cancelled in the last few years with RIM/Blackberry. But that’s a FOIA for another day.

What did I learn from this? Well, I learned that this is an agency that’s reasonably up to date, although they do still have a few hundred machines that are more than a decade old. In technology time, that stuff is ancient. The oldest computer in government by no means lives here, but it’s interesting to catch a glimpse at what an ordinary agency’s current inventory looks like. And, if any government agents are reading this on that one clunker, I feel your pain.

Want to take a crack at the data yourself? Fork it on Github. I’ve included the data in CSV and JSON formats, the script I used to process it, and the JS to render the charts above.

Image via Department of Energy Flickr