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Client demo in 30 minutes. Just what could go wrong?

DNS means Do Not Shove under desk

On Call Welcome to a continent-trotting edition of On Call, in which a Register reader takes a trip to sunnier climes only to be let down by a clown in windswept Blighty.

Our hero, whom we shall call Simon though that is not his name, was gainfully employed at a UK telecoms outfit way back in the mid-1990s. Carrying the vaunted title of systems engineer, he was based in the City of London doing pre-sales work for some of the world's biggest finance companies.

High-powered stuff, indeed.

One of these financial firms held its annual conference in a different international city every year, inviting potential and existing clients to wine, dine, and generally have a good time at its expense. The year our tale takes place, a new wheeze was suggested: why not have one of those new-fangled internet cafes at the conference hotel?

Simon was quick to volunteer. After all, the city selected was Madrid, which enjoyed both better weather and better cuisine than the London of the 1990s.

How hard can it be?

The plan was simple: fly out to Spain, form a network of PCs at the hotel, initiate an ISDN connection back to base in the UK, pipe in some internet goodness to this pop-up cafe, and demonstrate your employer's marvelous communications capabilities.

"Being reasonably techie," Simon told us, "I established in advance exactly what I would need in terms of the kit – a Cisco router – and exactly how to configure the ISDN modem that would be provided in Spain."

After spending a few days making sure everything was set up on the UK side, Simon – Cisco router in his luggage, wedged between fresh Marks and Spencer underpants – boarded a flight to Madrid.

It was Sunday, and the cafe had to be ready by 10am Monday. All went well: the PCs, provided by the big financial firm, were set up, and the router was freed from Simon's underwear and plugged in. A link back to the UK was established, and Simon was surfing the internet as fast as 1990s ISDN technology would let him.

It was a good end to the day. There is no record of whether or not he celebrated with a well-earned adult beverage. We like to think he did. Several.

Sadly, the inevitable going-wrong happened the following morning. It began well. The PCs fired up, and Simon checked that the accountancy websites to which the customer wanted access were working. At 8.30am he treated himself to a pastry and some coffee.

At 9am, with the customer stood next to him, it all went wrong.

"A quick router reboot, problem still the same," recalled Simon: "I could access any site I wanted providing I knew the exact IP address, but unfortunately I couldn't resolve the domain names.

"By now it's 9.15am and my customer's clients are due to walk through the door at 10am."

With the icy finger of fear jabbing his neck, and under the fixed gaze of the customer, Simon put in a support call to the UK.

"I was informed the DNS server had overheated," he said.


We have redundancy, we have batteries, what could possibly go wrong?


Forget an air-conditioned server room: it turned out this DNS server was sat under a programmer's desk in some provincial British town. This would explain the inability to resolve any domain names.

With the big hand making its way inexorably to doom o'clock, when the customer's clients would arrive, an increasingly panicked Simon asked if perhaps the server could be fixed? Or replaced? Or something? Now?

The bored voice from the UK droned, "What's your maintenance contract number?"

Simon snapped. The usual "don't you know who I am?" – in this case, the guy about to screw up the most important demo of the year – cut no ice. Expletives slid off the Teflon tech support staffer, who was secure in the knowledge that hundreds of miles separated him from Simon's wrath.

"Eventually only the threat that my managing director, a well-known American at the UK telco, would put a rocket under somebody's backside had the desired effect," recalled Simon. By 9.55am something finally happened. Replacement or reboot – by this time Simon didn't care – and five minutes later "all was sweet and light once more. Phew!"

Ever been as ready as you can, only to have all your hard work undone by slipshod behavior hundreds of miles away? Or maybe you were that bored voice on the phone wondering if you could squeeze in a tea before rebooting the box? Tell us, with an email to On Call. ®

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