Competitive techies almost bring distributed disaster upon themselves – and they didn't even find any aliens

Idle hands are SETI's workshop

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Our story comes from a reader Regomised as "Felix" and takes us back to the early part of this century, when Nokia's 3310 was quite the thing and SETI@Home was the tool of choice for those wanting to help the search for extraterrestrial intelligence.

Now no longer handing out tasks, the SETI@Home project was a large-scale example of distributed computing, analysing radio signals in search of the markers of intelligent life. It worked by breaking the work into chunks, which could then be processed by computers running a small client application to chew through the data.

During this time, Felix was working in a technical support role for a large telecoms vendor and was on a 12-hour shift rota where two "day" shifts were followed by two "night" shifts. While the site was occupied by thousands of workers during the day, at night Felix and his team of five or six had the place pretty much to themselves.

Being a major player in the business, the vendor had extensive labs, lavished with kit in order to model its customers' networks and handy for recreating problems. It was also handy as a playground for Felix and his 24-hour "Emergency Support" access card.

Around this time SETI teams were becoming a thing, and Felix told us: "We installed SETI on all lab machines possible, pointing to a SETI server back in our office that acted as a proxy and queuing system for the downloaded data chunks known as 'work-units'."

"Our SETI server," he confided, "was a completely illegal machine actually built from odd bits of dead machines and parts from the spares bin and it was lovingly known as 'RoboPC' – a splendid Siemens Nixdorf P200MMX with two LAN cards!"

The gang also popped the client on a variety of Unix machines. Alas, even with the content of the labs churning away, it still only amounted to a few dozen machines and some way from the greatest SETI teams. The quiet time of the long night shifts made for the devil's work and Felix and his pals set about expanding their SETI empire.

Thanks to a bit of nefarious password snafflery, they acquired some administrator credentials and worked through all the other office PCs (used by the day workers), managing to add another 50 computers, all Windows NT 4.0 devices, to the fleet.

With the aid of tools such as SetiHide concealing their activities from the user and running SETI as an innocuous-looking service, Felix's competitive instincts were at least partially sated.

"Our SETI stats had never looked so good," he boasted.

"Shame we hadn't noticed a small typo in the scheduling of our SETI drones, meaning they were actually running permanently, not just out-of-hours as we'd planned."

"Oops."

Fortunately for Felix, his shift patterns changed just as the wheeze was discovered. He pottered into the office on a normal day-shift morning to find the place in uproar. "Something like the Monty Python 'Spanish Inquisition' sketch," he recalled.

One of the more enthusiastic members of staff had noted that a suspiciously large number of PCs in the office were crawling along, running hot and showing 100 per cent CPU usage.

"Really helpfully," he growled, "they'd reported to IT."

"The PFYs were stumped, the problem came back a few minutes after the usual 'just turn it off and on again' reboot and they just couldn't work out why a 'system service' was gobbling CPU."

Sadly for Felix, the telco had recently acquired a networking outfit and deployed its analysis products onto the facility's infrastructure. Worse, the software was quite a bit better than that which had gone before and a network engineer soon spotted an awful lot of connections going to the gang's cut-and-shut RoboPC.

Making his excuses, Felix moved fast: "I got there just in time to power off the SETIserver and stop any further investigation of its possible physical location... phew!"

With the server off, the NT machines were unable to get any more work units "so the problem magically went away".

RoboPC was never found, and the next few night shifts were spent extracting SETI from all those office PCs.

Wary after their brush with a potential career-limiting SETI incident, Felix and co instead amused themselves with the likes of reverse SSH tunnels. "We also had a Dell Optiplex GX110 desktop hidden under a raised floor acting as a Wi-Fi AP, turned on at night, turned off during the day to avoid drawing attention to itself...

"Some nights we pointed a Pringles can antenna out of the window... hooked up to a company laptop that had been forced to boot RedHat Linux 7.3 with a 802.11 PCMCIA card with external antenna lead.

"Heady days indeed."

SETI@Home may be on hiatus, but there is always Folding@home to chow down on all those CPU cycles. Perhaps you've also repurposed the odd PC or two when you thought nobody was looking? Share your tale with an email to Who, Me? ®

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