When the folks at Longford Equipment International Ltd. write software, it’s got to be fast.
Scarborough, Ont.-based Longford builds packaging and inserting machines that bop along at a brisk 160 to 400 items per minute. And each item must get individual handling. The equipment packages everything from unique sets of sports cards, created on the fly by randomizing which card dispensers activate, to health cards whose magnetic stripes have to be read as they zip by so they can be matched with custom-printed mailing backers.
There’s little room for error, and no place for software that can’t keep up. So, for close to 10 years, Longford’s programmers have written their custom systems using Borland C++ 3.1 for DOS.
Users have called it “the perfect compiler.” Released in 1992, it has since been supplanted by 32-bit products (Borland currently offers version 5.5 of the 32-bit compiler as a free download), but even Borland Canada’s director of technical services Robert Doyle immediately acknowledged, “It was the best.”
That somewhat biased sentiment was echoed by one of Longford’s software engineers, Jeff Joiner. “Unequivocally, it is the best DOS compiler,” he stated. “The environment is all right, it’s easy to use, and the libraries are standard – we have run into a few things with Visual C++ (libraries). It’s perfectly suited to the task at hand.”
When that task is the real-time control of high-speed equipment, Windows just can’t cut it. Joiner said that internal experiments have shown that Windows can only reliably control machines processing about one item per second – less than half the usual speed of Longford’s slower systems. “Windows gives a nice front end,” he said, “but it has all that overhead. It can get in the way. If we need to, we can do the graphics in DOS.”
He admitted that, for some tasks, Windows seems okay. “If it’s not running fast, or if something else is doing control –only the systems using Windows as a controller are slow. One item per second seems okay.”
It is getting harder to find programmers with the appropriate experience, however. Joiner said that, in a recent round of hiring, only 60 to 70 percent of short listed applicants had any DOS C experience at all (Most of them knew Visual C++, a Windows programming language). But of those who do, he said, all spontaneously applauded the choice of the Borland compiler under DOS.
“There are other real time operating systems, like QNX,” Joiner noted, “but they’re expensive. It boiled down to what was simple, relatively inexpensive, and good enough. If you want speed, you want DOS, and Borland C++ 3.1 is the best DOS compiler. I’d be reluctant to try to move away from DOS, and as long as we’re producing DOS systems, I see no reason to switch (compilers).”