Christmas Greetings to all Sysadmins!

Here is an article by a much-loved IF Blog friend whose IF Blog comments we enjoy fairly often. It is Hans Bonfigt. For me, it was a total surprise that he now, for once, accepted the role of guest author. Here come his:

Christmas Greetings to all System Administrators

If we are totally honest, there was always this special way in which “we” IT persons have always been, well, what in our country you would call “wound up”. No, it has nothing to do with Mr. Jobs’ plagiarism. Instead, it is owed to a certain lack of understanding:  “You only start working when the lights are turned on”, is what they said about us. Of course, my dear users (we know no worse name to call anybody), how else are we supposed to repair the systems you, once again, managed to damage, if you are still sitting in front of them? Formerly, it was not possible at all, because the typical work place used to be a one-desk system where, naturally, only one person could work. At some point, the machines became ‘capable of multi-tasking’, but that did not mean the users had learned to work with a multi-tasking device. We are a little more demanding – we mostly want the machine exclusively for ourselves.

And while you have been lying on your sofa since at least last Friday, a small minority has been busy since Friday noon trying to bring order back to where you produced rubbish. Their maximum number of hours of sleep is two in 24. After all, we know what outcries we again get to hear tomorrow, on Thursday, if some minor glitch is still discovered: “WE CANNOT WORK …” !  –  Well, tell us something that is News to us!

Indeed, every year the Augean Stables you produce in our systems get more annoying and, above all, bigger. And you just do not seem able to learn. Mind you, I never seriously assumed you would stop putting the post-its with your passwords on them underneath the mouse mat. After all, I know what stupid expressions you choose and there must be a place where all those facebook losers originated.  Well expecting something like a minimum of responsibility – that would be truly foolish. If that were what I expected, I would have chosen another job.

Yet, over the years, I actually had hoped you might at least form a habit of doing those things that would make life easier for you: but nothing could be farther from the truth!

– Use no spaces and no umlauts in file names – that is what we have been preaching for more than twenty years. And, above all, do not copy the entire text or your document into the file name. You of all people, who you are not even capable of distinguishing between a capital ‘O’ and a zero, should definitely not take for granted that umlauts, or even only upper or lower case are implemented cross-platform and interoperable in file names. Let alone in your so-much-loved windows, which, incidentally, only knows the “8.3″ nomenclature – which stank to high heavens even under DOS.

– For at least as long, we have been preaching that you should “save shared files centrally AND STOP MAILING THEM TO EACH OTHER”. And we also tell you, “USE THE CORRECT CITATION METHOD and stop forwarding all the never-ending exchanges of replies and replies to replies at the bottom of each mail”. So, guys and dolls, I have now been sitting in front of a 24 TERABYTE mail spool since last Friday and am expected to downsize it to 12 TB. And you can bet that this is exactly what I did. And you cannot make an omelette without breaking eggs.

– How often have we told you to empty your rubbish bins? But do not worry, this is also something I did for you. The razor sat as deep as your neck.

– Since we are at it: I also removed all your browser caches. Because I was simply not in the mood to save the huge pornographic collection you designed with all your clicks and to migrate it to the new SAN you claimed was necessary.

The information society definitely no longer has a slim, even face. Instead, it has a bloated visage like Dirk Bach. Thinking of former times makes me nostalgic:

I was among those who actively remember all the punch cards: the maximum source file size of the KIENZLE SLM was 2,780 lines, which just about fitted into a small suitcase. It was truly a nuisance, really heavy and it definitely took time to ‘do a quick copy’. Merging was hell on earth. We all definitely had to be word perfect in the machine language, because an assembly run with a comparable number of cards took 2 1/2 hours. If you were not able to patch manually, you were literally “at the end of your teethers”.

The ECMA-34 – cassette was a blessing. Well, my dear users, you know it as a music cassette, but basically, it had not even been intended for you. Rather, it had been intended for us. An entire suitcase of punching cards was now small enough to fit into a shirt pocket: there was room for 900 groups with 256 symbols per group and you could use both sides. Even better: the 8-inch-floppies. It was no longer even necessary to load the source data. You could process them directly.

The next revolution were the “big” hard disc drives which no longer crashed every other week: basically, you no longer needed to handle data storage media, because everything was on the system, anyway. All there was left to do was save the data. Saving data with the half-inch tapes was somewhat tedious, the maintenance was quite time-consuming: you had to set the “cat’s eyes” which resulted from the printing head signal and the phase-delayed echo by 180 degrees of the reading head correctly when using the oscilloscope (yes: that is really what they were called). The tape machines were devilishly fast and had an almost unlimited capacity.

With the Cartridges, ibs, the QIC Cassette, affordable systems were now available. Our first sweetheart managed to process 20 MB in half an hour.

We are talking about the time when those unappetizing “Commodore” machines were flooding the market. They looked like bread shelves. This was in the late 1980ies.

So what exactly had changed?

Currently, I am supposed to design a complete SAN over the holidays. ALL, and I mean rally all data of a medium-sized enterprise should be stored there. And I have to delete ALL. Of course after having made a copy on tape before and, naturally, redundantly. And because it is important: also dissimilarly redundant.

The Cartridges have become smaller and faster. Currently, more than 140 MB are flying from the tape to the hard disc per second. That means the system manages about seven times as many data as were common in the 1980ies on the QIC 20 cassette. Instead of 3.5 hours, we now need one second.

This equals a production increase of 1,259 %.

But, hey, is that REALLY true?

The enterprise I am currently working for also had a QIC-20 tape station in the 1980ies. It was connected with an IBM /38 which supplied the entire enterprise with the necessary infra-structure.

Basically, this is exactly what the new IT is doing: supplying 200 persons with diverse programs, just like it used to be. Maybe a few more persons are working there today. In the 1980ies, a migration took three days – in the new situation, I have already been at it for five days. And I will not be finished before tomorrow morning at five o’ clock. On the old machine, a well-trained service technician could do the job. The new system is ultra-complex, combining almost all the latest technologies in one box – in particular, it can no longer do without windows and the oh-so-great IBM RUBBISH-TOR – this is a pile of rubbish built from randomly connected JAVA parts that smells to high heavens. No human being can handle it. Luckily, I am not a human being.

Basically, the old machine was never out of order. To be sure, due to the redundancy, the new one is also never at a standstill, but individual components are faulty all the time. And the then necessary repair work makes you perspire with anxiety.

The old machine was really quick. So is the new one, but the JAVA/AJAX/PINGPONG – stupidity interface is extremely slow and the users are just sitting around and twiddling thumbs.

Yes, my dear users – I HAVE NO MERCY! You were the ones who wanted the GUI, now you have it. Low-quality raised eyebrows for low-quality employees. Each to his own.
But where did progress go? Didn’t we have it at some time in the past?

The answer can be found with Bertrand Russell. Let me cite once more:

Every technological growth will cause a corresponding growth in wisdom, provided it also means an increase in human happiness.

Vulgo: the IT landscape changed from being a ‘Tool’ to being a ‘Toy’. With all the unpleasant consequences. A short time ago, a secretary at Northwest AG told me how she had produced a letter ten times as fast using HIT/CLOU, an InterFace AG text program, than she can do it now with the current “Word” version. Mind you, she needed about the thousandth part of the computer capacity, main storage and disc memory.

We have become slow, obese and degenerate.

Well, and some way or other, the spirit is missing. There used to be a time when I actually enjoyed those “night-flights”. I relished the soothing noise of the air conditioning and, above all, I was absolutely certain that the job would be finished by the deadline.

After all, only the fact that I can grasp the design of a system at all will put me in a position to be able to take responsibility.

Today, I can no longer be sure I actually understand the complexity. And if there is anything I failed to notice over the last days, then 200 persons will not be able to work next Thursday. Neither on Friday. Neither the week after. Because we have neither programs nor data. Income and salaries will still be fine, that is done externally, but it is questionable if they can be paid.
And I had better prepare to live under the bridges.

And, YES, there are many persons who, even now, do something that is a lot more important. For instance all of the train drivers: unlike me, who is “haunted by” the idea of 200 persons, they are responsible for 800 persons. Or the stressed-out traffic superintendents who have to act with the highest possible responsibility, although they are given damaged machines to work with. If you take the degree of responsibility into consideration, basically everything becomes relative, even the money you get for it. For instance, what was Mr. Mehdorn “responsible for”?

In many ways, Roland is a model for me. In the years to come, I will start exercising more and downsize the admin job, which is still a third of my work life, until it dwindles to nothingness. Because it is a very tiring job. When I was an adolescent, I heard something Günter Grass said, “powerlessness tested with rubber walls”.

I would like to send greetings to all this world’s administrators who, equipped with Pizza, Cola, Junk-Food and Cigarettes, under high risk and with a relentless deadline and almost unendurable stress still manage to put enterprises back to the network on time for their first day of work.

Hans Bonfigt

I was truly delighted to read this article. Dear Hans, let me thank you very much for writing it.

(Translated by EG)

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