This is the third installment in a trilogy of IT (un*x, really) related rants; the end, as they say, is near. But a trilogy — trilogies are created by writers, not talentless hacks.
I’ll keep telling myself that.
The last two chapters (‘Patching‘ and ‘Enveloping‘) were about one specific, but unnamed un*x vendor. This story is about a different one, thus proving that ano-cranial inversion can be found practically anywhere.
One day I was sitting in my office (probably in front of the computer that I bought myself) when some boxes arrived. Boxes arrived regularly but most of the time I was expecting them; these were out of the blue. I opened them to find a shiny new un*x workstation, plus keyboard, mouse and monitor. What they were for, I had no idea.
A couple of days later, it was all revealed to me — a professor told me that he had ordered it and could I install the operating system and set up the machine in his lab?
I could. Or at least I thought I could.
Things started out promisingly: I connected all the various bits, plugged in the power and network and started the install. Disks spun, LEDs flashed, and things happened. About halfway through, though, the monitor flickered and the display dissolved into a blur. Things stopped happening.
What does one do in situations like this? Why, call the vendor of course. That always works.
“I’m trying to install the operating system and the display done went
That stumped him. “Please hold while I transfer your call.” I got a new voice that couldn’t help either. Transfer. Transfer. Transfer. “We’ll have to call you back.”
Days passed. Heck, a week passed. Finally, I got a call from a guy named Frank. Frank cut to the chase: “Do you have a VGA monitor?” Why, yes I did. How did he know? It turns out that, while this workstation was compatible with VGA monitors, there was a catch — the operating system could specify a video mode that not all VGA monitors could display. This is why the first part of the install worked, but when the installation switched modes to one that was non-always-supported, it was Bad News.
“Oh. Is this documented anywhere” I asked. “In any documentation that I actually have access to?”
“Not that I know of.”
It turned out that there was a workaround. It was even a fairly simple one — once you knew what the problem was. You just had to wait until the install hung then boot directly from the installation CD and examine the files that had been copied to the workstation hard drive. One of those files contained a list of video modes; all you had to do is edit that file (making sure not to bugger the syntax of the file) and remove any video mode that your monitor didn’t support.
Piece of cake.
I never did find out why they chose to change video modes ‘midstream’, so to speak. Frank didn’t know. But his explanation and workaround worked like a charm — the installation ran to completion with no more problems. At least, no more serious problems.
Afterwards, the professor was happy, at least for a while. Inevitably, though, he quickly became tired of playing with the operating system GUI and wanted to get some work done. Could I install a Fortran compiler? I thought so.
A brief aside: this operating system used a graphical tool to install software. You inserted the distribution media, started the installation thingy and followed the menus. It would then do its thing while an animated stick figure ran across the screen to reassure you that something was actually happening.
Eventually, though, the little man fell down. This really didn’t look that promising. My solution? Call the vendor again.
Remember how I had to go though every support guy in the country before getting a phone call from Frank? That’s pretty much what happened this time. (I did feel like a moron when I had to admit — over and over again — that all I knew was that the little man fell down.) Eventually, though, I got a phone call from Frank.
“Yes, that’s a fatal error but it’s nothing to worry about.” “Pardon?” “It fails because it can’t find the japanese-language support files. It can’t find them because they aren’t included on the Canadian CD. Fortunately, all the important stuff has been installed before it fails.”
I wanted to ask why they’d remove the japanese-language support files but not remove the references to them in the installation scripts. I decided, though, that that way madness lied. Instead, I just asked if this was documented anywhere. “Not really, no.”
So the prof went about his business, wrote programs, crunched numbers and was generally happy. So happy, in fact, that he decided to upgrade an old machine of his. Or, rather, he decided to have me do it. Wishing that I had Frank’s direct phone number, I set about doing just that.
This machine didn’t have a keyboard and monitor. Instead, it was configured with a dumb(ish) terminal on a serial line as the system console. I kind of hoped that this configuration would make mid-upgrade surprises less likely.
Because halfway through the upgrade, the terminal went dead. Stopped responding. Became a lower-tech-than-the-last-time doorstop. Which meant…
Call the vendor, stump all the gatekeepers, and wait for Frank. As usual, a week passed but Frank didn’t disappoint.
“You have a serial cable, right?” “Right.” “They changed the specifications for a serial cable. You have to wait until it fails, then disconnect the serial cable and rewire it. I’ll fax you the new specs.” “You’re kidding me, right?” “Nope.” “Is this documented anywhere?” “Umm, no.”
So this particular un*x vendor had a development team with questionable sanity and/or an extremely well-developed (but somewhat cruel) sense of humour. And one (1) support person in the entire country who knew what they were up to. Their entire support organization served no real purpose except to control access to that one person.
Un*x has a long history with a reputation for being difficult. I would maintain that it’s not un*x — it’s the vendors.