Animal crossing? Nah! Farmyard frolics, courtesy of Novell and pals

Giving students network messaging in the '90s. What could possibly go wrong? MY EYES!

Who, Me? Wipe that chocolate off your face and settle in for another story from the archives of The Register's Who, Me? collection of reader confessions.

Today's story sees the return of an On Call contributor and, while we are always wary of crossing the streams, especially in these troubled times, it seemed the thing to do where an origin story is concerned.

"Nick," who asked us to steer clear of farmyard puns, was a student at an agricultural college back in the mid to late 1990s.

He was learning all the important skills. Not huntin', shootin' and fishin' as one might expect, but "things like farm mechanic training, small animal care, horse riding/care, game keeping, etc etc."

The plan was that he would leave the establishment well versed in basic animal healthcare, have some simple skills in welding and fabrication as well as a grasp of business planning and staff management. He would also leave competent in computer usage and a thing called "Microsoft Office", the IT equivalent of going shoulder-deep in a cow's posterior and wiggling one's fingers around, James Herriot style.

"I was already good with computers," said Nick, modestly, "so would generally do the work in the first five minutes of the class and spend the rest of the time helping the group."

Recognising that Nick could ease the path to a pass mark in the computer bit of the course, his fellow students repaid the favour by helping him through everything else.

With time on his hands, Nick began poking around the Novell NetWare network. The version was likely 2.x as he recalled the college being a couple of iterations behind in releases. Version 4 was released in 1993 but heralded the eventual decline of the former networking giant as Netware Directory Services (NDS) brought its own special pain and other outfits, such as Microsoft, began to chow down on its networking lunch.

He came across a couple of interesting things in his explorations. One was a complete set of floppy disk images for Office 95, in helpfully labelled folders along with a text file containing the necessary keys. Another was Novell's messaging tool.

Showing the naïveté of youth, Nick shared the messaging tool with his group, hoping that they would use it to ping him a message when help was needed rather than disturbing others. Bless.

"In a turn of events that I now would have expected," he said ruefully, "the messaging tool started to be abused as awareness of it became widespread, with students using it to pass notes in class."

We'd like to think the network missives were filled with tips on animal husbandry. Actually, on reflection, they probably were. In a way.

The staff at the college failed to notice the electronic equivalent of screwed up bits of paper being slipped from desk to desk until a fateful day in Nick's second year.

"A member of my own group accidentally selected the option to send the message network wide," recalled Nick, "this meant that some random message best never repeated pinged up on all the computers in the college, shocking a number of staff at its language."

Sadly for Nick, the code of Omertà was not part of the curriculum for the livestock-botherers, and the source of the message was swift to point the finger of blame his way for demonstrating the feature. The idiot then went on to protest that the college should not have left the feature enabled if it wasn't to be used.

Nick was hauled before the senior staff to receive the hairdryer treatment over alleged network misuse.

"Well," he retorted, "you realise I could have pirated Office 95 off the network?" So badly had the network been configured that the install set had been left exposed where any user could get to it. In fact, the whole system was ripe for a virus outbreak due to the incompetence of the set-up.

"Maybe," he said delicately, "look at splitting the admin network from the student" and possibly direct the hairdryers on those responsible for running the thing.

Nick never did receive any punishment and, unsurprisingly, "both the share and the messaging tool were removed shortly after, although I am fairly sure they did not split the network as I recommended."

At the end of the course, Nick decided to cast aside the wellington boots for a career in IT noting that "20 years on from my last time in a tractor I am happy I made the right choice."

Ever found something that you thought was a handy tool being misused by others? We can think of some social media platforms that deserve a few sleepless nights. Or maybe traded e-i-e-i-o for plain old I/O?

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