August 10th 2016: Little mistakes big trouble
The Consultant
, by Emma Tonkin

The call-out address they’d given me turned out to be a basement in Essex. I’d never been to this site before, but after a decade or so all server rooms start to look the same. Basements in Surrey, batcaves in Slough, abandoned nuclear shelters in Stamford Bridge, they all have some essential characteristics. Concrete. Fluorescent tube lighting. Ineffectual aircon. Vinyl flooring in a colour generally associated with wildfowl droppings.

Inside, there was a sign on the inner door for Space Time, Incorporated. I was a little surprised. Ordinarily your big cloud storage providers and suchlike tend to cluster in Silicon Valley, though there are a few in the UK.

Weird little British startup ventures in the cloud provision space tend to aspire to bijou residences near Silicon Roundabout, in the astronomically expensive EC1 postcode of London. They’re not all that visible, especially following the economy’s collision with the Brexit iceberg, but trust me. They’re still out there.

Don’t believe me? Visit a Starbucks in Hackney and imitate the low, keening hoot of the venture capitalist. Be sure to duck, or you’ll be picking full-stack developers out of your hair for a week.

All startups have to start somewhere, though, so okay. Essex. Why not?

I nodded companionably at the bearded troglodyte who came to answer the door.

“Hi,” I said. “I’m Jonas, from Big Blue?”

“Kev,” he said. “IT systems.”

“What seems to be the problem?” I said. Original, me.

Kev looked at me a little bit bleakly. It’s the suit. It puts people off.

Then, as so often happens, I saw him remember that they’re paying for the support contract. He was the client. He owned the situation.

The knowledge inflated his thin chest. He drew himself up, ramrod straight from t-shirt to Wellington boots (Wellingtons? When did wellies become the new Doc Martens?) and said, with just the right hint of bravado, “The system’s been off-line since Wednesday.”

I had no idea what the system was. The callout sheet didn’t deign to offer that level of detail. Still, in consultancy as in lion-taming, it’s fatal to admit weakness.

I nodded. “Uh-huh. Any symptoms?”

“Sure. The logfiles are full of kernel resets, with the message ‘missing gateway’. And the portal’s kind of. I don’t know. Crying.”

“Crying,” I repeated.

“Oh yeah. Weeping. You know? Like its girlfriend dumped it on Facebook.”

He seemed to be on firmer ground with this lachrymose imagery. Maybe Kev was a poet in his spare time. Maybe he’d been dumped on Facebook. Whatever.

So their Web portal was on the fritz? No surprise there. The whole concept of a corporate portal needs to be put up against a wall and shot.

I’ll tell you this: an unbelievable number of development hours are wasted worldwide on useless client-facing pseudo-newspaper information-rich one-stop-shops. These systems never work anyway. The only saving grace in the whole debacle is, even if they weren’t broken, virtually nobody would use them. In that sense, many of us like to look on Web portal service technology as a victimless crime.

My life. Yeesh.

“Lead on,” I said.

Kev looked confused.

I clarified. “To your terminal?”

“Oh,” he said. “Right.”

I followed him into the gooseshit maze.

#

Hanging in the centre of a large and suspiciously well-lit subterranean room was a double-braided loop of matte silver metal. If it was hung on wires, I couldn’t see them. Water dripped monotonously from its perimeter.

That explained the wellies, at least.

I shivered. The room exuded sadness.

Never let the client see fear, I reminded myself. “So this is your terminal, is it?”

“Yup,” he said. “Earth terminal. All the rest is out that way,” he pointed at the impossible loop. “Well, you know. Obviously.”

I nodded earnestly. “Right. You mentioned log files?” Underneath the suit, I’m a mainframes guy. I’m generally happy to take any route back to my comfort zone.

“Yup,” he said. “Over here.” We crossed the underground vault to a metal desk on the far end, together with a threadbare wheeled office chair in frayed orange fabric. He poked at the yellowed keyboard until the monitor, an actual museum-piece cathode-ray tube, awoke with the crackling sound of falling dust.

He logged me in to a command line. Finally. Not a familiar flavour, but at least it was some sort of UNIX. Still, I’d have to be a little careful.

You know, back when I was a callow young engineer, I once typed killall on a Solaris machine. That was when I discovered the hard way that popular commands on some UNIX implementations have a far more literal mindset than the more easy-going Linux platforms. Typing killall on an application in Linux just disables all running instances of that particular software package. On Solaris, killall killed every single application running on the server. The single badly-behaved process I’d been targeting was caught in the crossfire, admittedly, so from that point of view the operation could be considered a success. On the downside, the collateral damage I caused took out the company’s mail server, billing systems and half-a-dozen databases. Not the best day of my working life.

Anyway, I shooed Kev out of the chair and checked out the system logfiles. The kid spoke sooth. The system was indeed very unhappy about an unresponsive gateway. Not necessarily a problem, but I’d need to find a plausible replacement to fill that gap.

Provided I could avoid thinking too hard about the details, this was going to be easy enough. I ran a script scanning the network for candidate endpoints, then ranked the results by response time: nearest, fastest, best.

The kid looked nervously at the screen, then the portal, which spat and burbled to itself as I typed.

My code delivered a list of addresses, all valid gateways responding to the network probe I’d set up. Just a bunch of IPv6 addresses, which might sound odd to you but was pretty much what I was hoping for. Everything’s on IPv6 these days. My fridge has a unique IPv6 address assigned to every single shelf. Actually, every slot in the egg tray has a universally unique identifier…but I digress.

I picked the first address from the top of the list. It was the nearest. As far as gateways go, I reasoned, nearest is fastest, so nearest is best. I edited the address into the offending configuration script, then crossed my fingers and restarted the network services.

#

The kid said, with the impeccably timed 20/20 hindsight of a born sysadmin, “Hey, wait on a minute, are you sure that’s right?”

The portal stopped dripping water. The braided hoops shuddered, twisted, and began to roar, streaming incontinent curls of liquid fire into the air. I stood up to watch it. Steam rose from the wet floor.

Well, that escalated fast.

A new set of kernel messages popped up, pulling my attention back to the screen. Wrong host.

“Thanks,” I said. “I could’ve guessed that.”

The kid squealed, “The framework’s not specced for this! We’ll lose containment!”

He had a point. The edges of the braid were bulging. If I stared at it carefully, a dizzyingly strange optical illusion pulled at my eyes. For a moment, I was looking through a thinly linked sequence of gaps, from a great height, far, far down towards a roiling sea of fire.

The room was getting hot.

“Right,” I said, grimly. I sat back down and cracked my knuckles.

The kid said, “Are you sure you don’t want me to get the manual?”

“Totally,” I said, because I was no longer planning on fixing it. I just wanted to switch the thing off.

#

I tried to shut the network services down, but the system wouldn’t let me do it. It rapidly became painfully hot in the underground room. The air conditioning overheat alarm went off, its shrill insistent beep beep beep doing wonders for my concentration.

Finally, I resorted to sabotage. I backed up the system files, then headed back into the config folder and typed ‘rm *’, tick tick clack tick bam.

The kid saw the screen just a little too late, and tried to pull my hands from the keyboard just as I auto-stabbed at the Enter key with my right pinky finger. “What did you do?” he screamed.

“What?” I said. “rm star? Just deleting some stuff, is all.”

The kid’s face was pale. He dropped to the floor, head in his arms.

“Look,” I said brightly, “The fire’s gone out.” What was left was just a couple of bits of braided metal by that point, a little melted in places, clicking as it cooled. The air conditioning was winning at last, thank goodness.

The kid said nothing. His thumb crept into his mouth.

Embarrassed, I excused myself, back up the off-colour stairs and into the reassuring warmth and normality of the street.

#

Half-way back to the car park, the midmorning sun winked out of the sky, leaving me with terrible finality in the dark.

I once read that it takes about eight minutes for the light of the sun to reach the Earth. Eight minutes. Tick tick clack tick. Bam.

Delete star? Oh, bugger.

#

Maybe it was my imagination but it seemed colder already.

I ran for the car. By my reckoning, I had about half an hour’s headstart before it occurred to everybody else to get out of the house and panic-buy some thermal underwear.

I’ve exchanged my pinstripe for something a little warmer. Next I intend to find a decent Irish pub, something cosy with a warm log fire and a good selection of bar snacks. By my reckoning, there’s about a week of craic ahead of me. Once I’ve found one, I have no intention of leaving until last orders are called once and for all, on the coldest day, when the beer taps freeze for the very last time.

Maybe if I’m very, very lucky, that day will arrive before you lot realise this whole apocalyptic cockup is my fault.

*

Emma Tonkin lives in a quiet village in the south of England. She is a recovering sysadmin and researcher who spends her weekdays in the basement of a University building. Her career path, like her academic record, wanders like a frog with hiccups between physics, information science and classical studies. She has recently developed a compulsive urge to write science fiction.


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