[TUHS] Vaxen, my children...

Richard Salz rich.salz at gmail.com
Sun Oct 20 06:29:10 AEST 2019

In other words, not true.

On Sat, Oct 19, 2019, 3:29 PM Clem Cole <clemc at ccc.com> wrote:

> An old Usenet Apocrypha message.    IIRC this show up after the great
> automated crash in 1987 and was being used an example of why the IBM
> monoculture led to the melt down of the markets.
> On Fri, Oct 18, 2019 at 9:16 PM Dave Horsfall <dave at horsfall.org> wrote:
>> A little off-topic, but quite amusing...
>> -- Dave
>> ---------- Forwarded message ----------
>> Time to post this classic; I don't recall who wrote it.  Note that the
>> references are pretty obscure now...
>> -----
>> 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 RA60s running a single application, PC
>> style,
>> into a data center with two IBM 3090s 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...
>> Sigh.
>> 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 assignment.
>> 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 its
>> 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? Sigh.
>> 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 ELFIs are
>> wont
>> to do, making an absolute bundle on the float.
>> 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 3090s.  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 3090s 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
>> 3090s with it.
>> So now the whole data center was dead, sort of.  The fire alarm system
>> had its
>> 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 rate.
>> 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
>> 3090s
>> 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 normally.
>> 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
>> 3090s 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 pretty shaky.
>> 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.
>> -- Dave
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