File suffixes: Who needs them? Well, this guy did

He followed the instructions... blindly

On Call Welcome to another edition of On Call in which minnows get munched and a Register reader recalls the headaches caused by the file extension shenanigans of a certain tech giant.

Our story today comes from "Rob" (not his name) who was working for a London-based tech company recently snapped up by one of their commercial clients keen not to lose access to their services.

"The result was that we found ourselves subordinated to their IT people in New York," said Rob, delicately adding, "who were most remarkable for how keen they were."

Unsurprisingly, it didn't go swimmingly. The Grand Poobahs over the Atlantic were not fond of their new subordinates' habit of not always following orders (normally when those orders would have resulted in the business foundering on the rocks of IT borkage). "One guy had a particularly high opinion of himself," remembered Rob, "and talked to me slowly in order that I could fully understand the complexity of whatever inappropriate or misconceived foul-up he was trying to persuade me to implement.

"Helpfully, he also pointed out how very significant their business was and how insignificant ours was."

Communications were always very polite, but we get the feeling that neither party would be buying the other a beer any time soon.

Hands needed to be joined across the Atlantic so Rob's bête noir had spun up a Windows Server VM, the sole purpose of which was to connect with the ones in London "to establish some kind of gateway between our domains, the exact function lost in the mists of time." This was, after all, more than a decade ago.

However, Rob did remember sending over the credentials for the link in a password-protected archive. All his counterpart had to do was stick the details into a file called credentials.txt, import it into the software, and lo – data would flow from nation unto nation.

But nothing happened. "A couple of days passed in which I was expecting at any moment to be told that the new gateway was up and running," Rob said, "but news came there none. No email, phone, fax, telex, telegram or pigeon arrived, no smoke signals were visible, no sound of conchs or drums. Nada."

As Rob was pondering what could have happened, the phone rang. It was his US colleague. He had been unable to persuade the credentials.txt file to import. He sounded a bit sheepish, but we're sure there was an undertone of "this must be your fault" to proceedings, judging by Rob's descriptions thus far.

"When I offered to take a look, somewhat to my surprise he immediately accepted the offer and gave me the information I needed to log in to the new VM."

The joys of remote access thankfully existed back then so Rob began working through the instructions. Yep, there was the credentials.txt file. Yes, it was in the right place. He opened it in Notepad (which "even helpfully told me that it was dealing with a file called credentials.txt"). Still all good, and no naughty characters where they shouldn't be.

His colleague breathing down the phone, Rob pondered. "Then I used File Explorer to look at the file's detailed properties..."

Aha.

As a bit of background, Rob had set up hundreds of Windows Server VMs in his time and there was a standard list of setup tasks involved, some management software to install, and some tweaks to be made to the UI. "Microsoft, in their brilliance, had decided that none of its users on any machine or in any environment needed to see those stupid file suffixes, so they changed the default to hide them."

Thus one of the standard steps (in those days) was tick the filename extensions box to ensure they were visible.

Being the Grandest of Poobahs, his US pal had not bothered to check the box. The result was a file that looked like credentials.txt but was actually credentials.txt.txt and therefore would not import. It was in a folder with no other files so, to be fair to the user, the problem was not immediately obvious. Over the course of two days, Rob's colleague had struggled with the issue, been suspicious of the contents of the file and the competence of our hero. However, he missed the fundamental issue of the file name, which looked fine. So he'd made the call.

And now he would have to choke down some humble pie as well.

It took Rob less than 30 seconds to fix the problem followed by an intensely satisfying 10 minutes explaining it to the caller. "I was sure that could hear the sound of the gnashing of teeth," he recalled.

"Oh, the joy, the joy."

"After that we spoke less frequently, and when we did so, I couldn't help but notice that he sounded haunted and defensive, and no longer patronising," said Rob. "Then one day he was no longer there."

"Was it something I said?"

At least Rob was able to make use of the magic of remote access. Ever had to diagnose something similar, but with only the heavy breathing of the telephone caller to direct you to the always-simple problem? Tell us with an email to On Call. ®

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