It's alive! Farmer hides neglected, dust-clogged server between walls

No, silly, the green screen isn't the computer. Let's follow the wires ...


On-Call Welcome again to On-Call, our regular look at the messes readers find themselves confronting when asked to go to help out their clients.

This week, reader Matt brings us a tale from the time “I was working in a tiny system-integrator firm that has some big clients.”

One of those clients was a substantial farm and food processing plant in California's central valley.

When the call came to help out on this site, it seemed as though the problem was all in software.

“The farm's industrial system had been running for years off some custom scheduling software that was controlled through a green screen terminal on the production floor,” Matt explains. “Unfortunately the green screen, on startup, was warning of various errors in the operating system.”

We explained this happened on a farm, right?

It should therefore come as little surprise that Matt's efforts to sort things out were made a little difficult by the fact that the “staff thought the little green screen WAS the computer."

Happily, an IT person was on hand to explain that the green screen was just a screen, for a VT100 terminal. Time to find the server, then!

Matt's explains to us that a series of questions ensued:

  • Now where is that darn thing?
  • Where do those wires go?
  • Through the wall?
  • What's on the other side?
  • Seriously?
  • Woah! What's that thing covered in?

Yes, dear readers, Matt's colleagues down on the farm had placed the server “inside an empty space with no ventilation between drywall panels.”

“When we finally did break through the drywall and took a look at the computer, it had five- to six-inch dust bunnies but was still running,” Matt says.

“It had a solid UnixWare on it, made from before SCO UnixWare went crazy and tried to sue everybody. A solid operating system and software on a solid early Pentium CPU.”

“The executable code was retrieved (no source available), and a price was quoted for a reverse engineering effort. The farm decided to go with a more modern, off-the-shelf software solution. I wish I had a cell phone back then. I would have taken some photos.”

Matt tells us: “It's a common trope in computers, the 'server hidden in the wall', but I never personally expected to see it.”

Share your own experience of the horrors that lurk within the walls, or elsewhere on client sites, by mailing Vulture Weekend for inclusion in a future On-Call. ®

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