[TUHS] [OT] VAXen, my children, just don't belong some places

Dave Horsfall dave at horsfall.org
Wed Oct 19 09:05:37 AEST 2016

Time to post this again; warning: you need to uderstand the obscure 
references...  I've actually worked in places like this.


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...  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?  
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 
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 
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 Horsfall DTM (VK2KFU)  "Those who don't understand security will suffer."
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Applix-L at object-craft.com.au

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