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Spaghetti Dirty Horror Show

© April 2009 Anthony Lawrence

My intention was simply to install a new computer and transfer a few files from an old wheezer. The old computer was crowded under a desk along with three servers; there was no more room so I just set the new one up on the floor initially.

I knew that the router and their main switch were located under that desk also. I vaguely remembered having a little trouble with that back when I had replaced one of those servers. I peeked underneath and my memory came back quickly.

The router and switch were little Linksys units and they were sitting way at the back on top of the newest server. I knew why they were way at the back: the old server was considerably less tall than the new and the wires leading to these devices were short and tight - I had to shove them way to the back because of the extra height. I remembered now that I had to have help with that - one person holding up the router and switch, another maneuvering the server underneath. That had worked, but now I needed to plug another ethernet wire in.. I didn't want to shut down the server and go through all that trouble again. They didn't particularly want that server shut off either.

So I stuck my head under the desk and squeezed in far enough to reach the switch. I say squeeze because the systems I had to go over left very little room - I had to turn my head sideways to get under the desk. Once past the lip, I was able to straighten out my head but my chest was tight against that lip. I could get my arms in, but barely.

I touched the switch and realized that I couldn't move it or turn it very much. I definitely wouldn't be able to see the back of it. But I had to plug in the new system. Working completely blind, I fumbled around and eventually managed that. The new system came alive. I had already shared the files I wanted on the old system so I browsed to it and began copying them over.

That went well for a few minutes, but then everything stopped. Unfortunately it wasn't just me - people at nearby desks complained they had lost their connections, their Internet.. something bad had happened under that desk. I peeked under.

Aaargh - the lights were all out on the switch. I reached under and as I touched it the lights came on. I let go - they flickered and went off. I touched it again. Nothing. I lifted it up the eighth inch that the play in the wires allowed me. The lights came on. I set it down. The lights went off.

Plainly the power connection was loose. I felt for it - it didn't feel loose. I pulled it out and immediately regretted that because it was several frustrating minutes before I could find the hole and line up the plug well enough to get it back in. The lights flickered on, stayed on for a few seconds and went out again.

OK, something had to be done about these ultra-tight wires. The problem really wasn't that the wires were short - it was that someone had neatly rolled them up to take up all the slack. That person had secured every one quite well with two plastic wire wraps. Thirty two wires, sixty four plastic ties. I went out to my car and returned with a pair of snips.

This wasn't all that easy either. I had a flashlight but it was hard to hold the flashlight and the roll I wanted to free while pointing it at that same roll. I had to settle for reflected light and because everything was so super tight. I had to contort myself quite a bit to make some of the cuts. It wasn't just these wires : tangled among these coils were old remnants of wires from when they had dumb terminals, telephone wires, disconnected cables of other types, a long disused modem buried under a power strip immobilized by the wires plugged into it. It was a jumbled mess - an archeological dump site. Remember too that I was working in near darkness, trying to hold a flashlight in one hand, snippers in the other, all while digging through this mess to find the ties I needed to cut.

Eventually I had all the wires free and now I could actually pull the switch forward without strain. Happily, the lights came on and stayed on - it was the wires pulling it away from its power cord that were causing the problem. Now that everything was loose, there was no strain and the lights stayed on.

But nobody was working.

Huh? Well, no, a couple of stations were. I looked underneath again and realized that a few wires wire plugged directly into the router. Those machines were working - well, they could get an IP address anyway. No Internet... why no Internet?

Oh - the WAN wire had fallen out of the router. The router had much more play than the switch had but of course it moved when I moved the switch and the wire must have fallen out then. Well, heck, it must be right there.. yeah, right there in that mess of spaghetti. That mess of ill-lit spaghetti. I couldn't spot it. I asked nearby people if they knew where the DSL equipment was, figuring I might be able to trace it back from there. Nobody knew. Great.

Ok, two problems now. Missing WAN wire and apparently no connection from the router to the switch. Wonderful. OK, we'll start with the visible wires. Which wire runs to the switch? There were only five, that shouldn't be hard. Except that every one just dove down into that mess of spaghetti and curled around all of its neighbors again and again.. I eventually traced it - and there were no lights. Blown port? Indeed it was - it must have blown when the switch was flipping on and off. I moved it to a new port and put a piece of tape over the bad port. People had IP addresses again. Now all I had to do was find that WAN wire..

I requisitioned another flashlight and pulled out the machine we were going to replace to give me more access. I dove in to the filth and started searching for loose ends. Unfortunately, I found two right away and neither were the WAN wire. I kept looking and eventually found it. Ba-ding, everything back up!

Except that the person at the nearest desk was staring at a dark screen. He had a KVM switch which allowed him to look at the server consoles and one of them - the one the routers and switch sat on - was dark.

KVM problem? No, simpler than that: in the course of poking in the wires, something pulled at the monitor cable for that machine. Why wasn't it screwed in? I knew why: when I had put that server in it was of course very difficult to reach the back at all and I had considered it good enough to get it plugged in: I hadn't been able to twist my fingers and wrist enough to screw it in tightly. So I squeezed under the desk again. I couldn't see the back of the server; again I had to find the cable by feel (not too hard) and then locate by feel again where it would plug in (a bit harder) and finally plug it in (very hard). Once again I couldn't quite get at it to screw it down well, but I think I got it more secure than it was. Oh well.. at least we were now back where we started with everything working.`

OK, now re-hook up the old box, go get those files, configure the printers, shut down the old, rename the new box to match the old, reboot and..

All done. Finally. A job that should have been an hour or less took four hours and gave me cuts on my hands and filth all over my clothes.

Oh well. It is what it is, right?

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Fri Apr 24 16:15:10 2009: 6257   anonymous

I've had various clients in a similar situations, network sprawl, and low-budgets turned into un-manageable nightmares, when and how do you say, "Next time you refresh its all rack equipment, and we're installing a rack with a lock." I've had terrible resistance to that sort of thing as a consultant, its often viewed as getting me what "I want" and not a business need, and no until I can document that the spaghetti mess has cost more in maintenance and downtime than the refresh it won't be heard, and then with great resistance, there must be a clean method for presenting this sort of thing early and insisting enough to be clear you believe its important, without it appearing to be a complete add-in sales job.

Fri Apr 24 20:21:13 2009: 6258   TonyLawrence

I wish I could show you pictures.. I can't because of security, but imagine a good sized outdoor flea market that suddenly had to be packed up and moved inside a normal two story house.. anything and everything just piled up and under and beside everything else. Walking through this place reminds you of things you might have seen on TV about compulsive hoarders except that it isn't hoarding, it's the stuff they buy and sell..

Sat Apr 25 00:24:01 2009: 6259   MartinMalden

Tony, hi,

I hope they paid you a truly enormous amount of money for that..! :) I could feel my blood pressure rising with every sentence...



Sat Apr 25 00:29:50 2009: 6260   TonyLawrence

Oh, sure - I can retire now :-)

No, in fact the owner is an old friend so I give him a low rate. And his business is falling off now too so I feel badly that it took this long.

Sun Apr 26 13:19:01 2009: 6263   MartinBruce

Apart from the GFC, your old friends business may be suffering as a result of the short cuts he would appear to force onto you. I work in a local courier company (in Australia) and at my bosses insistance each server (only four in the rack) all are recognisable from the switch, my boss wanted labels, I installed different coloured cables, (I find it easier to look at cable colour than reading a label, especially when the heat is on.) You may be best to insist to your friend that he should modernise and install the racks etc. that you dream of. How much did your extra 3 hours of trying to fix mistakes cost him in lost productivity? Let alone yours.


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