Big red buttons and very bad language: A primer for life in the IT world

Guess what I learned at school today, Mummy!


Who, Me? Blue flashes and blue language await in this week's Who, Me? where a Reg reader dispenses an unexpected education to a tour group of schoolchildren.

"Mike" is the teller of today's tale, which is set 30 years ago at the site of a major UK aerospace manufacturer. He was one of three engineers tasked with maintaining the banks of elderly (even back then) hardware used by the company.

The customer simulation department (think hydraulic-powered flight simulator platforms) presented a particular challenge. "They had a large volume of PDPs and RM03 and RM05 disk drives as well as TU77 tape drives and other assorted equipment such as the Evans and Sutherland Minicomputer," Mike explained.

Those drives were hulking great beasts, with a capacity that looks rather weedy by today's standards. Mike recalled "a mighty 67MB of storage per disk pack" for some, but the real challenge was maintaining the things. "The RM drives would often lose calibration," he said, "especially if there had been a lot of pack changes or after a power 'glitch' which this site suffered from especially after a thunderstorm."

With repair visits being pretty much a daily occurrence, Mike and his colleague Stephen were unsurprised to get a call to visit the data centre and attend to a RM05 drive.

The data centre was normally deserted, save for the ancient PDPs (replete with flashing LEDs), the humming drives, and the whir of the TU77 and TE16 tape drives that seemed impossibly futuristic in the 1960s and 1970s but were somewhat less so by the 1990s.

This time, however, there was tour under way of wide-eyed poppets from the local school as part of an industry education initiative. Ignoring the kids being guided around the ancient kit, our dynamic duo got to work on the stricken RM05. "For once not an issue with head mis-alignment, something a little more complicated." It took about 10 minutes to track down what the two thought was the offending component and another five to grab the spare.

"We could hear the tour going on," remembered Mike, "but no one was in our part of the DC, so replacement part installed, checks made, power on and… nothing!"

Odd. RM05 units use plenty of power so Mike expected to see at least signs of life. But it remained as dead as DEC is nowadays. "It is at this stage I notice the motor (that spins the disk pack) has a red button popped out," said Mike. "Not seen that before but obviously this was caused by the earlier power issue, I just need to push it back in..."

At this point Mike confessed that while there might have been comprehensive documentation for the RM05, and perhaps he should have consulted them, they were held on micro-fiche and, unsurprisingly, he and Stephen were less than keen to lug a portable micro-fiche reader around with them. "You can safely assume," he said of the documentation, "these were not referenced."

Mike recalled Stephen saying something along the lines of "I wouldn't do that" as his hand reached for the red button, but it was too late.

"There was an impressive blue spark, very loud bang, some acrid smoke and two engineers diving to the ground using an impressive selection of profanity."

He opened his eyes to find a crowd of shocked schoolchildren and the tour guide staring at him in disbelief through the smoke. He could hear Stephen saying something like: "Good job we stopped the drive spinning out of control!"

"I like to think we made a memorable impression on impressionable minds and some of those children are now seasoned IT professionals who have seen what havoc can be achieved with computer hardware."

It took another day to fix the RM05, and Mike learned an important lesson about pushing big red reset buttons without first knowing what had made them pop out. He also learned "that when required I can move pretty quickly whilst also providing a running profanity-loaded commentary."

And as for the RM05s themselves? They were eventually retired in favour of something smaller, cheaper and likely less bang-prone. Mike and Stephen had their revenge on the devices by wheeling them to their new home "over the roughest concrete path we could find." RIP RM05.

Were you one of those schoolchildren in the data centre, or have you failed to RTFM and made things so much worse? Let us know with an email to Who, Me? ®

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