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J.R. Buchanan


Get the hell out of my computer room!

July 2007

The first "real computer" that I managed was a Data General S-280 Eclipse. It was sold by Calma as part of the GDSII CAD package. It ran an operating system called "Calma DOS" that had absolutely nothing to do with Microsoft.

It supported four graphical workstations that had 19 inch (big in the day) color monitors that used vector graphics, rather than raster graphics. Each of these was paired with a 14 inch green screen text only monitor (for command line operation of the CAD tool), a keyboard, and a pen-based digitizer, that did what we'd do with a mouse these days. These graphical monitors were driven by two smaller computers called "Lexidatas". I think they might have been made by a company called "Lexical Data", but my memory is weak this many years later.

These workstations were located on one side of the rather large building we were located in, and connected to the computers, which were on the other side of the building, a casual five minute walk away, with big bundles of cables.

In addition, it supported a single green screen monitor and keyboard for system administration tasks. This was located in the machine room itself, along with all the other hardware.

The S-280, a minicomputer, was near the center of the cluster. It was about the size of a washing machine, and the monitor and keyboard sat on top of it.

To the left was a cabinet that held a 9 track tape drive with a ridiculously low data density. I forget what each reel held, but it took a big stack of them to back up a few hundred megs of hard drive during the weekly full backups. The bottom of this cabinet held the Lexidatas.

On the right were two disk drives, also each about the size of a washing machine. They held 300M each, pretty respectable in the day. They had removable disk packs that were a bit over a foot in diameter and had maybe 8 platters. They were threaded into place on the drive spindle, and when removed, they were stored in "Cake Pans" that kept dirt and dust off of them.

They crashed about once every two months. The heads would hit the disks, and plow deep furrows in the platters, exposing bare aluminum. It was important to keep a set of good disks on hand, so that when the service tech was finished repairing the drives, you could thread on the disks with a good OS and good copy of GDSII, then reload the designs from the backup tapes (which were made religiously, a habit I keep to this day). You were then back in business, and could make another set of spare disks at your leisure.

To the right of all this, there was a UPS, fully as big as the rest of the units.

One day, everyone was working away, designing hybrid circuit substrates, when the system simply froze. Nothing too odd, I figured that most likely I'd stroll down to the machine room, shut down the power, and reseat the circuit boards, and then reboot. Simple. I had to do it almost twice as often as I had to call in a crashed disk.

As I walked down the hall, I went around a corner, and noticed immediately that the machine room door was open. How did this happen? There were only a few keys, and they were all accounted for. I started moving faster.

I got to the point that I could look into the room through the big glass windows (when the machine had first been installed years ago, they had been mighty proud of it!).

My jaw dropped.

I moved a lot faster.

I entered the room.

I could not believe what my stunned eyes were gazing upon.

There was a crew of union carpenters, and they had a piece of plywood set on top of the disk drives. Worse, they were cutting it with a circular saw. They had the saw plugged into the UPS for the system.

I stormed into the room, yelling, "Get the hell out of my computer room!", at the top of my lungs.

A very large union supervisor sauntered up to me and pointed his finger at my nose and calmly said, "No, you get the hell off of my job site".

As it was though, I kept enough of my wits about me to know that it was very bad mojo to damage a union member. So I stormed off to get my boss. Who had the same reaction, and got the same result.

He went to the Carpenter's boss, and got roughly the same reaction, although probably a bit more polite.

Things escalated until some very high level supervisor was talking to the union leaders. It was decided that I was right, they should get the hell out of my machine room.

A lot of good it did, by the time that this decision was reached, they were smugly finishing their job, they had installed a new backdrop for a phone wiring "closet" that was going in my machine room without my prior knowledge.

After they left, I tried to reboot the machine. Nothing.

I was going to try reseating the boards, but decided to look at the disk packs first. Not good. Both had crashed badly before the heads had retracted, a first, as they usually only failed one at a time, and usually, it was the pack with the OS and most of the designs on it that got plowed up.

I called service, they came out, aghast at the story I had to tell.

Obviously, both disk drives had to be repaired. This time was special though. They'd never had to clean sawdust out of the air filters and really fine wood dust out of the air passages of the drives before. We also had to vacuum the room out as well before we could vacuum the insides of the drives out. Otherwise, what was the point?

A note: unlike today's hand sized disk drives, these guys were not hermetically sealed. They worked in a near vacuum, pulled by a large blower that evacuated the disk chamber. As I understand it, the small amount of air that was allowed in was used to "glide" the heads over the disk surface. This air was pulled in through a filter, but it was never intended for duty like it saw that day. These drives were intended to run in fairly clean environments.

The stunned service people also had to reseat all of the boards in the S-280 before it would reboot.

Before this happened, the reliability of the aging hardware had been dropping, but it seemingly took a sharp dip after this, and service had to be called more often.

I'm still not happy, many years later.