Author Archive: Daniel McAloon

March 10, 2008

Everyone is so Helpful Around Here!

Here at SoftLayer, all the developers stay on Jabber all day so we’re all accessible. As you know, we’ve recently been doing a major piece of software development: the new API. During development, we all were trying to get things finished as well as continue our day to day operations.

No fewer than 4 times during the last 3 weeks I have had the following conversation with a fellow developer.

Me: Hey, I need you to do something on this API class you wrote.
Other developer: Ok, no problem.
Me: Wait, you didn’t write this, did you?
Other developer: No, I didn’t.

Each time, when faced with a request to understand and modify something that they didn’t write, in addition to their already overwhelming workload, my fellow developers were more than happy to accept the new task.

It just goes to show what kind of environment we all work in here. Everyone is always willing to help, and it’s this attitude that allowed us to develop the API so quickly with such robust features. Each developer was willing to help the others, and that resulted in a tightly integrated product that we’re all very proud of.

The same sort of attitude pervades all of SoftLayer. I have had help on tasks from Networking, Accounting, and Sales since I got here, and each time everyone is more than happy to help out. The end result is, of course, that the customer gets their problems solved faster, and gets higher quality services out it the deal.

But really, fellow developers, if you’re reading this also, it’s acceptable to say “I didn’t write that” when I ask you to change it. I won’t be offended. Half the problem is that we have 5 developers with names starting with J, I just clicked the wrong guy!

-Daniel

January 29, 2008

Where is All the Noise?

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.

-Daniel

Categories: 
December 14, 2007

'Tis the Season to do Tech Support

I just got off the phone with my father. Actually, I got off the phone almost 24 hours ago, and I'm just now becoming calm enough to write clearly about it. My father had a problem: he was attempting to use a computer without supervision. Now, my father is a smart man. He has a master’s degree from Harvard, he has “A Brief History of Time” on his bookshelf, and he consistently left clicks when I ask him to right click. The exact nature of the phone conversation is boring an unimportant, except for one thing. My father needed at one point to save a document in MS Word format. Since he has a Mac, he created the document in Pages. He insisted that his efforts had been wasted since (he claimed) Pages was unable to save in MS Word format. I tried to convince him that it could save not only in MS Word format, but roughly 15 others, but he was unrelenting. Finally I got him to check in the Export menu “to humor me,” and lo and behold, that’s where all his Microsoft formats were hiding. Why do people ask geeks for help, then insist that the help provided is incorrect?

I am expecting to spend at least half of my Christmas visit fixing their multiple computers, synchronizing their files, uninstalling the spyware they were tricked into installing, and generally explaining to them that no, the computer cannot just “know what you want.” And at every turn, I expect to hear dissenting opinions and accusations that I am somehow “hurting” or “confusing” the computer by what I’m doing.

My fellow computer geeks all across the country will also be making that periodic tech support pilgrimage. Just talking to the other programmers in the office I’ve discovered quite an arsenal of tools that they will be bringing with them. From special screwdrivers and thumb drives to entire operating systems and (in one case) a whole new computer, we go into the holiday season armed and ready to set ourselves up for future tech support calls.

Some of my more memorable tech support calls have been from relatives, usually helpless in the basic skills necessary to diagnose the problem over the phone. My aunt made one historic call a few years ago. They had just gotten cable internet in their small country town, and after a week or so she was having problems connecting to the internet. So after hearing about the problem I told her I was going to need her to look at the modem. We spent the next few minutes arguing about whether or not she had a modem, and whether or not the problem could have been caused by never having a modem in the first place. After concluding that she did have a modem, and it was still where the technician left it (under the sink, good one technician! bravo sir!), I asked her “what do the lights on the modem look like?” A valid question I thought, and a relatively simple one. I was expecting to hear a short list of the lights’ labels and whether or not the light was lit. What did I get? “Well, they’re about a quarter inch wide and about a sixteenth of an inch…no…make that about three thirty-seconds of an inch tall, they’re spaced about a half an inch apart…why are you laughing!?”

Another fond holiday memory is the argument I got into with my grandmother. She wanted to “get a house page on the wide world web.” I managed to correct her to “world wide web” without offending her, but then the real fun started. She claimed that “the world wide web is better than the internet!” I tried to explain to her that web pages were only a very small subset of the internet, and that the two terms really didn’t describe the same sort of thing. She decided to put it to a vote. Proudly marching into the living room she announced to the 40-so gathered people “raise your hand if you think the internet is better than the world wide web!” They all stared blankly at her for a short time. Sensing victory, she turned to me and screeched “SEE!?” and stormed out.

So this year I will gather my toolkit, my extra networking cables, my CDs with avg antivirus, firefox, spybot, hijackthis, and zone alarm, my copies of windows XP and Mac OSX, two different linux live CDs, my thumb drives, and my overworked laptop, and make the trek down to my parents house. Please, if you are reading this and you didn’t recognize the items in that list, do yourself and the geek in your life a favor: Find out what operating system you run* and go out and buy yourself the “For Dummies” book that corresponds to that operating system. That can be your gift to your geek this year. Show them that you own the book that holds most of your answers, make a promise to them to at least open the book before you pick up the phone, and you will see what it’s like when someone experiences holiday joy.

Plus, you might learn something.

*Look at the top left corner of your screen, if there’s an apple there, proceed to “Apple”. If not, look at the bottom left. If there’s a start menu, proceed to “Windows.” If there’s neither, pick up the phone and call the person who works on your computer and ask them.

Apple: Click the apple, and go down to “About this mac.” There should be an entry on the first screen called “Operating system.” That’s the operating system you have, you’re done.

Windows: Click the start menu button and look at the left side of the start menu. Your operating system may be listed along the left side. If there isn’t, hold down the windows key on your keyboard and press the “Pause” key (you never use it, it’s in the top right). A window should come up that says “system” at the top. Your operating system will be the first item under “system”

-Daniel

Categories: 
Subscribe to Author Archive: %