Earlier in the week, Shawn Boles wrote a post that included some nostalgic feelings for old-fashioned computers. As I read it, I was thinking of my own experiences with the grandfathers of our desktop computers. I vividly remember getting the floppy disks out of the big dusty box, sliding them into the drive, and listening as the drive began its slow, crunching march towards the data I needed. That’s when it hit me. I can’t hear my computer! Sure, there’s a cooling fan in it, and if I stick my head under my desk I can hear not only the fan, but my coworkers quietly asking each other why my head is under my desk in the middle of the day. Other than that, there’s nothing! No drive heads moving, no crunching, no system beeping, no modem noises, and certainly no death rattles.
That’s right, death rattles. Those of you unfamiliar with the dinosaurs we used to call computers don’t know about the death rattles. The large floppy drives were the worst offenders. Every faulty sector on those disks caused a loud grinding sound that you could FEEL, indicating that the pencil-sized drive head was none too happy with encountering the data equivalent of a marching band at a funeral. Now that we’ve moved away from media that comes in physical contact with the drive head, we’ve moved away from the death rattles. However, hard drives can occasionally produce them, even to this day. When a hard drive goes bad, it emits this high-pitched chirping sound, akin to what you would expect a robotic sparrow to make.
When I was in high school, my best friend’s dad was a programmer. One day we were working on a bad hard drive for a friend and had a brilliant idea. We took a microphone and recorded the sounds the hard drive was making. With some Mp3 editing tools, we added roughly 10 minutes of silence in front of that sound. Then, we made the sound into his dad’s windows startup sound. So upon turning on his computer, he would work for 10 minutes and then hear the DEATH RATTLE. Watching his pasty frame lunge for the power button was hilarious for a good 24 hours after it happened.
Browsing computer message boards (yes, I’m a nerd, that’s why I work here as a developer) I occasionally come across people who are still cursed by dial-up modems, and they invariably ask how they can disable the noises their modem makes when it connects. I want to scream to them “DON’T! You’ll destroy your last audible connection to your machine!” The noises a modem makes are iconic, and a sufficiently trained guru can tell the connection speed simply by listening to the connection noises. From the industrial clanking of the 2400 baud to the sci-fi whooshing of the 56k, each remaining hardware noise is precious.
Precious to humans anyway. When I was younger I saved all my money for weeks to buy a 56k modem. I painstakingly researched (at 24,000 baud) all the different kinds of modems I could purchase, and finally decided on a US Robotics 56k modem. I arrived home from my triumphant shopping trip and promptly tore the cover off the family computer to install my new toy. Once installed, I powered up the computer, installed the drivers, and attempted to connect. Sweet, sweet screeching poured out of the modem, to my delight! However, my dog was also in the room. He had, until this point, tolerated the noises the computer had been making in “his” room. However, how there was a new noise. A new, screechier noise. And it was coming from an OPEN COMPUTER CASE. That’s right, in my excitement, I had left the case cover off just in case I had to tinker some more. My dog got up, walked across the room, and promptly ripped the modem right out of the case with one mighty chomp. He threw it on the ground, chomped it once more and then, satisfied that it would no longer disturb his rest, flopped back down onto his bed in the corner. I still cannot hear a connection sequence without bringing up that memory.
Of course, we don’t have to worry about these things at SoftLayer (dogs OR noises). We developers work on silent machines with no rattles or screeches, while the servers in the data center are attended to by dozens of employees, aware of any slight problem. The noise in the data center is substantial. Each employee wears hearing protection, and even with that the noise of thousands of cooling fans will get to you. Each time the developers have to spend a morning in the data center installing new servers, we spend the rest of the day shouting “WHAT?!” to each other. But computers will continue to get quieter, and our connection to them will continue to be less and less physical. Our customers know this already: none of them have even seen their servers, they rely on our skilled datacenter staff to monitor their hardware for them, day and night. But there are no death rattles, no screeches, just cooling fans.
The last of our noisy connection to our computers is starting to fade. Already we’ve stopped using magnetic media like floppy disks, and the noisy CD and DVD drives of yesteryear are being replaced with silent models. Even the hard drives that caused my friend and I so much joy are being replaced with mechanically simple solid state drives, which run much faster and have no noise at all. Come to think of it, I think I can learn to live in the new silent computing future.