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Recently (‘Docking‘) I made the comment that I once interrupted email service for twenty thousand people because I wore the wrong shorts. (This was Yet Another example of me leaving out context. Bad Rose, bad. Maybe there’s a support group or something.)

I was called out on this lack of context/detail by the Guy With Three First Names. TGWTFN has been mentioned briefly before under another name. He’s a gamer but despite that he’s a decent sort (many gamers are… social maladroits) and, as mentioned, he played a role in Ms. Rose ‘settling.’ (The reasoning is a little tenuous, even for me, so I won’t try to explain it.)  Anyway, I decided to try and answer his question. (It wasn’t phrased as a question, but I’m a little less picky than Alex is.)

Once upon a time, ‘we’ had a single server (Early on I half-heartedly tried to make the case that a clustered arrangement of smaller, cheaper machines would be, well, cheaper, but the savings were modest and a single machine was certainly simpler. Simple is good.) that handled basic internet-type services for students: email, personal web space, news, stuff like that. (Yes, there was a time when news was a ‘basic’ — or at least basic-ish — service, although those days are mostly gone. This is kind of a pity since that niche has been filled by a ‘replacement’ (web-based forums) that are inferior in virtually every significant respect. IMHO, of course.) This system sat on a table. That’s actually relevant to the story, so bear with me. Also relevant is the fact that the system (you can see this in the pictures) turned on with a key.


I have absolutely no idea why computer vendors are so bloody enamoured with keys. They’ll make an argument about “security” but to me that doesn’t really wash. I mean, servers are usually located behind locked doors (Because if you have physical access to the machine you don’t need anything else. Oh, and they’re usually too damned noisy to be anyplace else.) and if the machine is already locked up the added ‘security’ obtained from a key instead of a switch is, well, trivial. No, I think vendors do it because they’re desperately eager to appear cool and they’re convinced that keyswitches are cool. So cool that at least one vendor includes virtual keyswitches on some models. So cool that people will overlook minor things like the price tag.

“How much is the Model 9000? WHAT? Are you INSANE? Oh wait — it has a key? Well, that’s all right then. I’ll take a dozen, all different colours.”

What usually happens is that the key gets left in the switch/lock thingy because, as mentioned, it doesn’t really affect how secure things are and it makes it more likely that the key won’t be misplaced. There may as well be a switch. (Another level of aside: to add to the silliness, at least one vendor has models with keys that look like switches but they’re still keys. Hence cool. I guess.)

One thing about keys is that they tend to stick out. Dinguses that control power that stick out can be Bad — that little factoid has been known for, well, a long time. (Check out some of the power switches from 1985 — they were switches, not keys and they didn’t stick out.)

End of aside. Mostly. I think.

In those days most of our stuff sat on tables. Not purpose-built tables or anything; whenever we needed one we grabbed whatever was handy — which, at a university, usually meant those classroom desk/table thingies because they were handy and plentiful. Before long the room was full of desks (with ziggurats of hardware piled on them), power bars and mostly unlabelled network cables. It was kind of a mess. And piles of servers are bad, if for no other reason than if one breaks, it’s always the one on the bottom. Sort of like toast.

Before long (this was some time ago — before ‘Monitoring‘, even) it was pretty clear that this was inefficient and unmaintainable. (Well, that and the room was full of wobbly tables piled with stuff.) This is relevant to the story because, for machines that sat on tables, it didn’t matter a whole lot that the keys stuck out a bit.

The first thing to change was/were the tables: we bought some shelves that were actually designed to be used for computers — kind of ugly but strong and rugged with channels for cable management, baskets for power cords and stuff and tons of places to Pan-Ty (there’s a small story there) things to. And, since there were three shelves (plus the floor underneath the bottom shelf) they really eased the floor space crunch. Things were still a mess, but a better-organized and more compact mess. Two thumbs up.

Somewhere in there a server upgrade for the student machine happened. The new machine had a key (Oooo!) but the vendor had cleverly (?) put the keyswitch behind a door so it didn’t stick out (the door also had a key). Of course, being behind a door meant that you couldn’t actually see it, thus reducing the coolness factor. So it goes. The machine was fairly compact so it sat on the floor, under the bottom shelf, with its keyswitch nestled under a shelf AND hidden behind a door. You couldn’t see it at all. It was perfectly safe, for some definition of the word ‘safe’.

The next thing that happened (well, not the next thing — the next relevant thing) was another server upgrade. The new one was another floor-standing unit but there the similarities ended, mostly. The new one was bigger — not really taller (it still fit under the bottom shelf) but significantly deeper. Deep enough that it stuck out — a trip hazard for clumsy houseplants. AND it had a key. Unlike the previous one, there was no door or other device to keep the key hidden and out of the way. As such it was cooler but the key projected from the front of the unit.

A digression. (Well, it looks like one, but it’s really not.)

In the summer (or anytime that it’s remotely not cold — my choice of clothing isn’t dictated by the birthday of a dead rich person who wore ugly headgear) I like to wear shorts.

I also like pockets. At the time of this story I was probably carrying two (actually three, sort of) large rings of keys, a phone, a pager, a wallet short on cash but long on cards, a large handful of change (there were still pennies in those days), a knife, several old shopping lists, a small pile of used sandwich bags and a collection of metal widgets with no known function.

That’s a lot of stuff, which means a lot of pockets. Which, in turn, implies cargo shorts. You know, the ones with those ugly, unflattering but oh-so-spacious pockets on the legs. The pockets that are at exactly the same height as the key sticking out of the front of a server. The key that controls the power for a server used by twenty thousand people to get mail.

You can sort of guess the rest.

The phone in the machine room started ringing within seconds, followed closely by my pager buzzing like a horsefly on meth.

Fortunately, I was on the scene.


The Author

Rose Glace is the pseudonym of nobody important.


  1. The guy with three first names... says

    OK, someone has to say it (and you did imply it in your title…)

    I guess the mail server was shorted….

    (Just thing where computer science would be today, if instead of finding a fly, someone’s shorts were the source of that first “bug”)

    Thanks for the short story.

    (OK, I guess I’m cut-off now….)


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