Who, Me? Welcome to Monday. As the weekend recedes and workstations are fired up, pause a moment to travel with us to a time when an ill-judged bit of gaming took down an entire network and a Reg reader uttered "Who, Me?"
Our story takes us back a quarter of a century, and that wonderful moment in computer history when a certain special video game first began troubling the floppy disks and bulletin boards of yore.
"Ivor," for that is most certainly not his name, had just moved down to the gold-paved roads of London from what he calls "t'north" sometime around 1995. He swiftly found work as a "computer programmer" in mid-sized organisation with about 150 employees – "there was none of this 'software engineer' nonsense back then," he told us.
He was put to work creating FoxPro-based front ends for a PDP-11 database system. However, in a story that will be familiar to many, he ended up becoming a jack of all trades since the IT department consisted of a mere five people and those Windows 95 drivers weren't going to install themselves.
Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to save data from a computer that should have died aeons agoREAD MORE
"At some time in the previous couple of years before I started," he told us, "the company had brought in a network contractor company to cable up the whole building."
The goal was to put a computer on every employee's desk and "as was quite common in the corporate world in those days, the contractors shied away from Ethernet and its trendy star network topology and instead installed a 4Mbits/s token ring network."
For those not grizzled veterans of the topology wars, token ring "did exactly what it said on the tin," according to Ivor. It consisted of a long cable, configured as a ring, to which PCs would be hooked up via clunky connectors. A packet known as a "token" would be sent around the cable containing information about its destination. It would be given to each connected device in turn, which would either accept or reject it.
Simple, right? Ivor used another analogy: "Imagine a single tube carriage going round and round London's circle line forever. People would get on when it reached them, and get off when it got where they wanted to go. If there was no train in the station they have to wait till it arrives, and if it's already full when it does arrive, they'd have to wait for it to come round again."
That last part of his analogy turned out to be rather important.
Ivor had arrived at his workplace at the height of the Doom phenomenon, a boffo game in which players could use all manner of weaponry – chainsaw, shotgun, plasma rifle, chaingun etc. – on various hellspawn in a gloriously pixely 3D environment. Even better, it had a networked mode in which players could attempt to blow each other away.
This hack fondly remembers crafting Doom
.wad files to create simulacrums of the office environment and replacing the creatures from hell with images scraped from the special place on the network that HR thought no one knew about.
Something else no one knew about, at least not at first, was just how aggressive Doom's network usage was.
Early versions, recalled Ivor, "essentially tried to send as many packets as it possibly could out onto the wire, trusting the router to deliver them quickly and efficiently."
Doom's infamous bandwidth-busting broadcasting habit, however, remained a mystery until someone in IT produced a set of floppies during a quiet afternoon and the gang headed to virtual Mars for some networked mayhem.
"It was one of the most fun times I've had at work," said a wistful Ivor, "for about 15 to 20 minutes."
Then the phone rang. Accounts wanted to know if the network was OK.
"Well, obviously it was," sniffed Ivor. "We were all merrily blasting each other to bits using the network, so no problems there." Right?
Then the other calls came rolling in and the IT team realised that maybe something was wrong. The game was closed and the gang investigated. Ten minutes of diagnostics showed no problems so, as any good IT professional would, they called back the users and told them the issue was fixed. No harm done. Heroes one and all.
A few days later the floppies came out once more, and within 15 minutes the phones began ringing once again. It was at this point that realisation dawned – it was all a bit too much of a coincidence. The harmless game of shooty-bang-bang in IT "was flooding the network with Doom packets. It was only a 4MB network, remember, and the ring technology meant that there was no opportunity for routing or sub-network isolation."
To continue Ivor's analogy, each time the little tube train came around, the players' PCs filled it with packets of Martian mayhem. The rest of the company, trying to work, were left standing on the platform after packed tube after packed tube passed by.
Ivor's lesson to avoid further calls from distressed customers? "Don't play computer games at work until after 5:30pm!"
Ever indulged in some harmless japery, only to have the phone ring immediately with an accusatory tone? Or spent a little too long before two and two made "for goodness sake, turn that thing off NOW"? Email Who, Me? and share your tale of IT misadventure. ®