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I built a shed once. How hard can a data centre be?

Brute force and ignorance a happy VAX does not make

On Call The world of IT and hard physical labour are unlikely bedfellows, but a troublesome VAX installation brought the two together in today's On Call.

Our tale comes from a reader Regomised as "Fred" who was a field engineer back in the 1980s. "I had a customer," he told us, "who informed me they were going to purchase a two-processor VAX 8820 (Polarstar) system."

"Being that they were a technology company themselves, they had declined any assistance from DEC in the planning of their new DC they were building for the new VAX... Which I suspect was really driven by their bean counters," he added darkly.

cat on a laptop

Cats: Not a fan favourite when the critters are draped around an office packed with tech


Sure enough, Fred got The Call from the customer on the day the mighty minicomputer turned up in an equally mighty truck. The issues had begun before the VAX had even sampled electricity.

The customer (knowing ever so much about technology) had elected to build its data centre on the first floor, served only by a single stairwell. And that stairwell? Spiral of course.

"The staircase was quite wide for a spiral but even so, attempting to get a very heavy set of VAX cabinets up this was going to pose a problem," explained Fred, "so a heavy duty stair climber was called for."

"Three hours later the device turned up and the first cabinet was secured to it and the VAX started its journey up the stairs."

By this time a small crowd had gathered to watch the progress of DEC's minicomputer and emitted a gasp when it became all too clear that stair climber was not really designed for spiral staircases. It was time for plan B.

In a move that would horrify health and safety fans today ("this could have resulted in a number of people being crushed by the VAX if it had fallen backwards," remarked Fred) the strongest members of the company were drafted in to push and pull the computer up the stairs.

It took another two hours before the now sweaty group were able to congratulate themselves on a job well done. The VAX cabinets were finally on the correct floor. Hurrah!


"Now, in retrospect," admitted Fred, "it would have been sensible of me to have eyeballed the data centre the customer had designed and built in advance of the VAX being delivered..."

The ever so technical customer had noted the dimensions of the VAX and sized the glorified server room to accommodate the VAX 8820, a VT terminal, and roughly two feet of clearance all around. The door, at least, was big enough. But the rest of the room? There would be problems.

"I broke the good news to the customer that although we could get the VAX into this room... we had some issues related to not being [able] to open the cabinet doors, the cooling was insufficient and we would, if switched on, 'cook' the VAX.

"But more importantly the VAX required an American 3 Phase power socket."

The customer was less than pleased: they now owned a VAX 8820, but could not use it. The "data centre" required rebuilding in order to accommodate the hardware. And a crash course in electrical standards was needed before the machinery could be connected.

And to top it all off, Fred was owed a day of On Call money, having had to oversee the fiasco on site and in person.

"And the kicker," he concluded, "was that within 2-3 years they had replaced the VAX 8820 with a much cheaper and more powerful VAX 6000 series."

For some reason, Fred's story puts us in mind of a certain Bernard Cribbins classic. Can't think why.

"Right," said Fred. "Have to pick the VAX up. That there VAX is going up the stairs..."

Ever stood by and watched a customer try to cram a square peg into a round hole? Or given thanks for Ms Time and Mr Materials when calculating the call-out charge? Share the time you were called out to witness self-inflicted silliness with an email to On Call. ®

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