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He was a skater boy. We said, 'see you later, boy' – and the VAX machine mysteriously began to work as intended

Go pivot on this

On Call Everyone loves a mystery so clamber into the On Call vaults for a good old-fashioned VAX-based whatdunnit.

Our story takes us back some 40 years when Register reader "Ethan" (for that is definitely not his name) was toiling away in product support for DEC.

DEC, or Digital Equipment Corporation, was quite the noise in the latter part of the last century. Responsible for the PDP line of machines, which often feature in these pages, the company followed up its successful minicomputers with the Virtual Address eXtension (VAX) series in the 1970s.

The VAX machines saw the company through the 1980s, at which point microcomputers began to nibble away at DEC's dominance. The DEC Alpha of the 1990s was not enough to save the company, and the outfit was eventually flogged to Compaq in 1998.

Back in DEC's heyday, Ethan had been called out to an installation in California and was working with a senior technician to resolve an intermittent problem on a VAX system. Though there had been "too many strange problems, too many years," confided Ethan, this was certainly an odd one.

Random, unrecreatable problems are every engineer's most favourite thing, right?

The VAX kept going offline or resetting at random times, but there was no obvious sign of an issue. Ethan and the tech pondered the problem but were unable to come up with a solution.

Sometimes, however, the era plays its part.

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"While standing in the UCSD computer room discussing the problem with the branch tech," Ethan explained, "an operator with a batch of mag tapes slung on one arm went whizzing by on roller blades."

The skating fellow, loath to shed velocity, grabbed the corner of the VAX's system drive enclosure, and pivoted on it in order to whizz off in a different direction.

The rumbling of the roller blades coincided with the mysterious resets.

"The branch tech," said Ethan, "made the profound statement: 'I think we may have found the source of our problem.'"

Ethan and his chum did not bother to work out if the rocking from the pivot or a discharge of static from the skater was to blame for the reset. Instead a little operator education was dispensed (possibly with the aid of a long, sharp stick) and the problem was never seen or heard of again.

A happy ending for the VAX, even if we can't help but feel a certain nostalgia for the days when roller blades were the quickest way of shunting data around a data centre rather than the humdrum fibre of today.

We have fond memories of wheeled office chair races back in the distant past, although, in retrospect, the server rack chicane may have been a step too far.

How about you? Ever been called out, only to find office hijinks were to blame? Send an email to On Call and share your story. ®

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