Not quite the smell of Napalm in the morning, but a burnt server gets things off to a good start...

Year 1997 - Episode 15


I wander into work after a hard night on the pop. My senses, however, are not so dulled that I fail to notice the smell of burning coming from the computer room. This and the PFY's jacket slung across the back of his chair can only mean one thing. He wants another promotion.

True, it is more than overdue, given that the last time he got a rise was over six weeks ago, but personnel has recently decided to put its foot down.

The PFY emerges from the computer room with a fire extinguisher and what appears to be a major part of the cooling system from one of the Human Resources servers. As per training, he seems to be putting his best foot forward - straight into the groin of anyone in the way of his plans.

"Good lad," I think, my chest swelling with pride.

I prepare myself for the inevitable call. Moments later the phone rings and caller ID identifies my 'client' as none other than the deputy head of personnel, a person with whom I've had more than one previous 'joust'.

"What the hell's up with our server?"

"Well, I'm not sure yet, but I believe that it has suffered from thermal runaway..."

"You set our bloody machine on fire?" he shouts.

"No, of course not. It's a common fault - as machines get older the collection of dust internally can combust, caus..."

"The bloody thing's only three weeks old!"

"Hmm, it happens sometimes. You can't expect the PFY to babysit the thing given the pittance he earns," I continue.

"That's it! We're running our own system from now on," he cries before slamming the phone down.

A couple of days later my fears are realised when a new server appears in HR, complete with customised operating system and no operator access. The boss fails to grasp the enormity of the potential problem - if departments purchase their own machines there's a good chance they'll find out that there is a slight disparity in what they paid us for servers in the past and what they really cost. A slight disparity of around 200 per cent.

I leave history to run its course - after a little God-like meddling from the PFY and me. Sure enough, a day later the deputy head of personnel calls, deep in grease-mode.

"Hello," he smarms.

"Hi."

"We're having a little trouble with our server and wonder if you'd give us some advice."

"What's the problem?"

"Well, we need to be able to list all the files in a directory, including their creation dates," he replies.

So, he's started with a trick question, has he? He's obviously testing me to see whether I'm going to give good or bad advice, using his extremely limited knowledge as a benchmark.

"Sure," I say. "Just 'ls -l' the directory concerned. You might want to pipe the output to something."

"Oh yes," he continues, expecting the ubiquitous 'rm' response.

"Yes, the 'more' command."

"Oh." He's obviously disappointed because he didn't catch me giving duff advice. Stupidly, he decides to trust me... "There was one other thing. We've got some problem with our system having very slow response."

No surprise there, considering that the PFY cranked up the ping-polling on their server to about 30 per cent of the network bandwidth.

"I was wondering if you could recommend something to speed it up?"

"Not really, the newer machines are usually fairly well tuned. Oh! Hang on a moment - I bet you haven't applied the Memory Expansion Patch to the kernel have you?"

"Ahhh... no, no, I don't think we have," he mumbles, attempting to feign advanced knowledge.

"Ah well, you'd best do that then, hadn't you?"

"Good idea. Refresh my memory - how do we do that again?"

"You know," I respond casually. "Echo 'MEMORY-EXPANSION' > /dev/kmem - it's usually the first entry in your /etc/inittab file."

"Oh, of course it is. I think I removed it for tuning," he replies, lying through his teeth.

A quarter of an hour later and he's back on the phone, a little more excitable this time...

"The bloody server keeps crashing!" he cries, panic-stricken. "It won't even bloody start."

"Well I guess we could take a look. What's your root password?"

There's a moment of indecision before he blurts out the word "morepay". Quick as a flash the PFY and I start trolling all their other machines to see if this password is used elsewhere. Hit rate: high.

A day later the new HR server is back under our control, the deputy head of personnel is firmly back in his place and the PFY back into the well-worn saddle of 'recently promoted contractor'.

In fact he's in such a good mood he wanted to tell personnel what we've been putting in their water cooler. I persuade him to save that for another day...