When civilisation ends, a Xenix box will be running a long-forgotten job somewhere
'Keep it running a few weeks.' Fast-forward 5 years. 'Why'd it break, man!?'
Who, Me? We've all heard the phrase that "best is the enemy of good", but we've all also shoved in that "temporary" solution that ended up being a bit more permanent than we'd hoped. Welcome to the home of duct tape and prayers: Who, Me?
Today's confession comes from a reader we'll call "George" (not his name) and takes us back once more to the UK of the 1980s and his time working at a pathology company.
"They were switching from a proprietary ICL system to a new Unix-based solution which was still in the 'being developed' phase," he said.
The 1980s were the period when ICL (International Computers Limited) was getting increasingly cuddly with Fujitsu - which would result in a takeover in the '00s. ICL was still a big noise in the UK mainframe world back then.
For the history buffs, ICL also had roots in Elliott Automation and the English Electric Computers company, itself notable for the LEO (Lyons Electronic Office) computer, which will celebrate its 70th anniversary this week.
Back to George. "Due to some government requirements, they needed a quick solution to process a new type of pathology report," he said.
It was that old chestnut: it only needed to work for a few weeks. Just until the whizzbang Unix system was up and running, replete with flashing lights, whirring noises, and reports aplenty.
Fine. George found an ageing Xenix box, unleashed his C skills and put together a rag-tag mash-up of shell scripts to get things working. It "provided a form entry/lookup/print system that met the immediate need," he told us. Just for a few weeks, mind. Until the new system was in place.
He thought no more about it and, as is so often the case in our industry, moved on to another job. And then another one. The Xenix box was long forgotten.
Five years went by before the inevitable call came through. "My 'lousy software' had stopped working," said George.
At least that was how the person on the other end of the line described it. At first he had no idea what the caller was complaining about before dusty recollections shuffled forward.
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After a jaunt down memory lane, "it turned out that the system was fine and the stop-gap forms were still working," he told us. Impressive stuff and a testament to his skills that it had kept ticking over all that time. However, he'd forgotten one thing: "The disk had filled up and it couldn't save any more files."
Hence the complaint. Sure, the "lousy software" had performed its task admirably for years, but no more disk space meant no more reports.
George whipped out that favourite of command line jockeys,
rm to clear down some of those years old files and dropped in a
cron script to repeat the process every few months.
"The system was as good as new," he recalled. "I still wonder if it is still being used..."
We can't all write code that continues to run unattended on decades-old NASA and ESA probes, but a good few of us probably have left temporary fixes in dark corners of the data centres that lingered way past their use-by dates.
Tell us your time-expired tale with an email to Who, Me? ®