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by Jack Harvey, harvey(at)eisner.decus.org
VAXen, my children, just don't belong some places. In my business, I
am frequently called by small sites and startups having VAX problems.
So when a friend of mine in an Extremely Large Financial Institution
(ELFI) called me one day to ask for help, I was intrigued because this
outfit is a really major VAX user - they have several large herds of
VAXen - and plenty of sharp VAXherds to take care of them.
So I went to see what sort of an ELFI mess they had gotten into. It
seems they had shoved a small 750 with two RA60's running a single
application, PC style, into a data center with two IBM 3090's and just
about all the rest of the disk drives in the world. The computer room
was so big it had three street addresses. The operators had only IBM
experience and, to quote my friend, they were having "a little
trouble adjusting to the VAX", were a bit hostile towards it and
probably needed some help with system management. Hmmm, Hostility...
Well, I thought it was pretty ridiculous for an outfit with all that
VAX muscle elsewhere to isolate a dinky old 750 in their Big Blue
Country, and said so bluntly. But my friend patiently explained that
although small, it was an "extremely sensitive and confidential
application." It seems that the 750 had originally been properly
clustered with the rest of a herd and in the care of one of their best
VAXherds. But the trouble started when the Chief User went to visit
his computer and its VAXherd.
He came away visibly disturbed and immediately complained to the
ELFI's Director of Data Processing that, "There are some very strange
people in there with the computers." Now since this user person was
the Comptroller of this Extremely Large Financial Institution, the 750
had been promptly hustled over to the IBM data center which the
Comptroller said, "was a more suitable place." The people there wore
shirts and ties and didn't wear head bands or cowboy hats.
So my friend introduced me to the Comptroller, who turned out to be
five feet tall, 85 and a former gnome of Zurich. He had a young
apprentice gnome who was about 65. The two gnomes interviewed me in
whispers for about an hour before they decided my modes of dress and
speech were suitable for managing their system and I got the
There was some confusion, understandably, when I explained that I
would immediately establish a procedure for nightly backups. The
senior gnome seemed to think I was going to put the computer in
reverse, but the apprentice's son had an IBM PC and he quickly
whispered that "backup" meant making a copy of a program borrowed from
a friend and why was I doing that? Sigh.
I was shortly introduced to the manager of the IBM data center, who
greeted me with joy and anything but hostility. And the operators
really weren't hostile - it just seemed that way. It's like the
driver of a Mack 18 wheeler, with a condo behind the cab, who was
doing 75 when he ran over a moped doing it's best to get away at 45.
He explained sadly, "I really warn't mad at mopeds but to keep from
runnin' over that'n, I'da had to slow down or change lanes!"
Now the only operation they had figured out how to do on the 750 was
reboot it. This was their universal cure for any and all problems.
After all it works on a PC, why not a VAX? Was there a difference?
But I smiled and said, "No sweat, I'll train you. The first command
you learn is HELP" and proceeded to type it in on the console
terminal. So the data center manager, the shift supervisor and the
eight day operators watched the LA100 buzz out the usual introductory
text. When it finished they turned to me with expectant faces and I
said in an avuncular manner, "This is your most important command!"
The shift supervisor stepped forward and studied the text for about a
minute. He then turned with a very puzzled expression on his face and
asked, "What do you use it for?" Sigh.
Well, I tried everything. I trained and I put the doc set on shelves
by the 750 and I wrote a special 40 page doc set and then a four page
doc set. I designed all kinds of command files to make complex
operations into simple foreign commands and I taped a list of these
simplified commands to the top of the VAX. The most successful move
was adding my home phone number.
The cheat sheets taped on the top of the CPU cabinet needed continual
maintenance, however. It seems the VAX was in the quietest part of the
data center, over behind the scratch tape racks. The operators ate
lunch on the CPU cabinet and the sheets quickly became coated with
pizza drippings, etc.
But still the most used solution to hangups was a reboot and I
gradually got things organized so that during the day when the gnomes
were using the system, the operators didn't have to touch it. This
smoothed things out a lot.
Meanwhile, the data center was getting new TV security cameras, a
halon gas fire extinguisher system and an immortal power source. The
data center manager apologized because the VAX had not been foreseen
in the plan and so could not be connected to immortal power. The VAX
and I felt a little rejected but I made sure that booting on power
recovery was working right. At least it would get going again quickly
when power came back.
Anyway, as a consolation prize, the data center manager said he would
have one of the security cameras adjusted to cover the VAX. I thought
to myself, "Great, now we can have 24 hour video tapes of the
operators eating Chinese takeout on the CPU." I resolved to get a
piece of plastic to cover the cheat sheets.
One day, the apprentice gnome called to whisper that the senior was
going to give an extremely important demonstration. Now I must explain
that what the 750 was really doing was holding our National Debt. The
Reagan administration had decided to privatize it and had quietly put
it out for bid. My Extreme Large Financial Institution had won the bid
for it and was, as ELFI's are wont to do, making an absolute bundle on
On Monday the Comptroller was going to demonstrate to the board of
directors how he could move a trillion dollars from Switzerland to the
Bahamas. The apprentice whispered, "Would you please look in on our
computer? I'm sure everything will be fine, sir, but we will feel
better if you are present. I'm sure you understand?" I did.
Monday morning, I got there about five hours before the scheduled demo
to check things over. Everything was cool. I was chatting with the
shift supervisor and about to go upstairs to the Comptroller's office.
Suddenly there was a power failure.
The emergency lighting came on and the immortal power system took over
the load of the IBM 3090's. They continued smoothly, but of course
the VAX, still on city power, died. Everyone smiled and the dead 750
was no big deal because it was 7 AM and gnomes don't work before 10
AM. I began worrying about whether I could beg some immortal power
from the data center manager in case this was a long outage.
Immortal power in this system comes from storage batteries for the
first five minutes of an outage. Promptly at one minute into the
outage we hear the gas turbine powered generator in the sub-basement
under us automatically start up getting ready to take the load on the
fifth minute. We all beam at each other.
At two minutes into the outage we hear the whine of the backup gas
turbine generator starting. The 3090's and all those disk drives are
doing just fine. Business as usual. The VAX is dead as a door nail
but what the hell.
At precisely five minutes into the outage, just as the gas turbine is
taking the load, city power comes back on and the immortal power
source commits suicide. Actually it was a double murder and suicide
because it took both 3090's with it.
So now the whole data center was dead, sort of. The fire alarm system
had it's own battery backup and was still alive. The lead acid storage
batteries of the immortal power system had been discharging at a
furious rate keeping all those big blue boxes running and there was a
significant amount of sulfuric acid vapor. Nothing actually caught
fire but the smoke detectors were convinced it had.
The fire alarm klaxon went off and the siren warning of imminent halon
gas release was screaming. We started to panic but the data center
manager shouted over the din, "Don't worry, the halon system failed
its acceptance test last week. It's disabled and nothing will happen."
He was half right, the primary halon system indeed failed to
discharge. But the secondary halon system observed that the primary
had conked and instantly did its duty, which was to deal with Dire
Disasters. It had twice the capacity and six times the discharge
Now the ear splitting gas discharge under the raised floor was so
massive and fast, it blew about half of the floor tiles up out of
their framework. It came up through the floor into a communications
rack and blew the cover panels off, decking an operator. Looking out
across that vast computer room, we could see the air shimmering as the
halon mixed with it.
We stampeded for exits to the dying whine of 175 IBM disks. As I was
escaping I glanced back at the VAX, on city power, and noticed the
usual flickering of the unit select light on its system disk
indicating it was happily rebooting.
Twelve firemen with air tanks and axes invaded. There were frantic
phone calls to the local IBM Field Service office because both the
live and backup 3090's were down. About twenty minutes later,
seventeen IBM CEs arrived with dozens of boxes and, so help me, a
barrel. It seems they knew what to expect when an immortal power
source commits murder.
In the midst of absolute pandemonium, I crept off to the gnome office
and logged on. After extensive checking it was clear that everything
was just fine with the VAX and I began to calm down. I called the data
center manager's office to tell him the good news. His secretary
answered with, "He isn't expected to be available for some time. May
I take a message?" I left a slightly smug note to the effect that,
unlike some other computers, the VAX was intact and functioning
Several hours later, the gnome was whispering his way into a
demonstration of how to flick a trillion dollars from country 2 to
country 5. He was just coming to the tricky part, where the money had
been withdrawn from Switzerland but not yet deposited in the Bahamas.
He was proceeding very slowly and the directors were spellbound. I
decided I had better check up on the data center.
Most of the floor tiles were back in place. IBM had resurrected one of
the 3090's and was running tests. What looked like a bucket brigade
was working on the other one. The communication rack was still naked
and a fireman was standing guard over the immortal power corpse. Life
was returning to normal, but the Big Blue Country crew was still
Smiling proudly, I headed back toward the triumphant VAX behind the
tape racks where one of the operators was eating a plump jelly bun on
the 750 CPU. He saw me coming, turned pale and screamed to the shift
supervisor, "Oh my God, we forgot about the VAX!" Then, before I could
open my mouth, he rebooted it. It was Monday, 19-Oct-1987. VAXen, my
children, just don't belong some places.
The author of this piece is Jack Harvey, harvey(at)eisner.decus.org,
and it was originally published under the title "The Immortal
Murderer" on January 18th, 1989 on DECUServe, the DECUS member
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Packard. It can be reached by Telnet at:
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the archived Soapbox conference, note number 168.
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