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The Brits keep their humor in the computer room

Sep 21, 20045 mins
Data Center

* And now for something completely storage-crazy

Things aren’t what they once were, the saying goes. And perhaps they never will be.

E-mails from my readers generally fall into either of two categories. One group consists of letters from vendors, who not only enjoy the opportunity to offer their own evaluation of some of my thinking but also sometimes seize on the opportunity to point out what they perceive as an obvious similarity between at least one analyst they read and pond scum. Writing such letters seems to bring to many a great deal of contentment.

I don’t charge for this sort of therapy, and I like to think that in my own small way I have contributed to the mental health of at least a few vice presidents of storage marketing. And they in turn have proven to me that many of them really can read, and I don’t mean just the small words.

On the other hand, I also hear from IT people and engineers living in the real world, who also often comment on something I have written. Oftentimes they will try to nudge me into following up with another article on a sometimes-related topic, but sometimes they too just want to vent. 

Either way, their notes are always much valued and are often very informative. I try to respond to each, although sometimes one slips between the cracks and go unanswered. Thanks to all of you who write.

On occasion however, I also get my comeuppance from IT managers who write in. For example, a few weeks ago I ran a series of articles on Serial Attached SCSI (SAS), and as a part of that series in one article (“Enterprise disk drives have come a long way”) I made reference to a bit of history from the 1980s, referring to the old SMD format disk drives – washtub-sized, loud, and holding all of 300M bytes of data (at hundreds of dollars per megabyte).  Thinking back to those days, I recalled how contractors would came in with special vacuums to vacuum out the disk packs, getting rid of the dust that accumulated.

Well, my memory may have been a bit faulty, and one correspondent, Pete the British IT guy, did a refresh for me. In what follows I have adjusted for the vagaries of British spelling but, as you will see, not for British humor. Slightly paraphrased, Pete said:

“[Vacuuming] may have been what it looked like, but I think your memory cells have gone slightly random access rather than sequential!  What we were actually doing on a regular basis was inspecting the platter surface using a light and mirror system, looking for telltale signs of burnt oxide caused by Head, Disk Interference (HDI).

“Extreme cases of such friction resulted in the complete loss of the media, resulting in the fabled disk command “Read Aluminium” for WORN technology (Write Once, Read Never).

“The operator’s instinctive reaction, when a disk caused an error, was to blame the disk drive and swap the disk pack to another drive.  This of course resulted in two disk drives having contaminated read/write mechanisms and thus also resulted in two damaged disk packs. If the disk media had ‘crashed’, then the drive mechanism was contaminated.  This was when the vacuum cleaner came into play.

 “Such heady days, such amazing overtime rates …”

He goes on to reminisce about the thrill of getting paid for removing hot chocolate residue that had been liberally spread over 160 disk packs at a client site, and about the customer whose brand new computer system was commissioned on a Friday but, over the (unmanned) weekend, a water pipe burst under the raised floor. They had a sump pump, but it had not yet been connected to the electric supply, and by Monday morning the rising water had triggered the under-floor Halon fire suppression system, which succeeded in frothing the water, which then entered the wall mounted air handlers, causing massive evaporation that sent the dehumidifiers crazy.  By Monday morning it was visibly raining inside the computer room!

Pete got to dry out 200-odd disk packs, presumably still on an hourly rate.

From all of this we learn several things.

First, disk technology may have been more exciting in those days, but we all have plenty reason to be happy at how far we have come.

Second, IT history can be fun.  If you have any bits of it worth sharing, please send them along and I’ll publish them whenever time allows.

Finally, I am happy to note that – notwithstanding the untimely passing of Douglas Adams, and despite the fact that Monty Python has gotten awfully long in the tooth since we first came to know them – the British really do still have a sense of humor. 

Perhaps this will be some compensation for the many foreign tourists in the U.K. who find out the hard way that the British also still drive on the wrong side of the street.