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Lifeline

Week of July 3, 2002
About incompetence caused by greed.

On the last Saturday of June 2002 a major Internet backbone carrier in the US had a blowout. The blowout lasted ten hours. It was caused by incompetence. The incompetence was caused by greed.

Loss of Internet services means millions lost in e-commerce. It also means home surfers are without connectivity. These home surfers will then call their 800 numbers, listen to Muzak for hours, and in the end be told nothing at all.

Such a blowout affects connections everywhere. Anyone attempting to go through the portion of the backbone hit by the blowout will get nowhere at all.

At approximately 8AM EST on 29 June, a technician for Allegiance Telecom sent a routing table upstream that was full of baloney. As the routing table began to propagate things got successively worse. More and more areas of the backbone became inaccessible. But it was a Saturday, and Allegiance Telecom, who swear by their fastidiousness in keeping clients connected, were not in the mood to work. And to work in this case meant calling in a real rocket scientist.


It is the early 1990's, and David Neil Cutler has taken his entire Prism team cross-town to Redmond Washington. NetWare is still the networking OS of the day; the web does not yet exist. And Bill Gates's need for Cutler's team is so dramatic that Bill agrees to hire on David's hardware engineers, even though Microsoft Corporation has no use for them. David Neil Cutler is, for all apparent purposes, in complete control.

But appearances deceive. At a fateful meeting with upper Microsoft management, David Neil Cutler is told that he must provide a graphical user interface to his coming LAN file server OS. When he asks innocently why this should be necessary - after all, file servers are kept locked in an uninhabited room, are they not? - he is told that Microsoft want 'wizards' to guide system administrators through the complicated steps involved in server configuration.

Slowly it dawns on David Neil Cutler. Microsoft wants to turn over this most sensitive area of data maintenance to idiots. They will soon start their MCP programme, and they want to be able to get their Mickey Mouse Club thing going and recruit Tastee-Freeze merchants world-wide.

This is not the sort of thing one should discuss with the likes of David Neil Cutler. The meeting explodes in expletives and violence. But Windows NT marches on, and soon afterwards the MCP programme is in full swing. Soon network providers everywhere will be inundated with this latest concoction of the Boy from Seattle - a popularisation of IT to the frightening extent that even those who take care of the rest of us will never be adequately qualified.


Microsoft Certified Professionals cannot handle routing tables. But Microsoft Certified Professionals are cheap. They're like pieces of plumbing pipe. Need a new network? Hire on a new MCP. But what happens when things go south?

In every IT organisation there are a select few who are shadowy, who both stand and feel apart. They live in the world in which they work. Occasionally a hand will reach out of the fog towards a sandwich or a cup of tea left nearby on a table. And when they sleep, they dream the solutions to the configuration, system design, and programming snags they encountered that day. When and if they sleep that is. And when things come to the crunch, it is these people who are called on.

The grunts do not understand them. The suits hate them. The grunts will turn to them in times of panic and get legendary solutions. The suits will begrudge them their victories and continually search for the ways and means to set them out to pasture.

Most of these Merlins come to their employers out of sheer luck - good luck for their employers, bad luck for them. When IT companies get ready to hire, they don't look for Merlins. A suit will formulate a brief request and sketch a bit of a qualification requirement list for a little old lady in human resources, who will then transcribe it all into a bit more palatable copy (as she sees it), then the ad will go out. Those who respond will be interviewed by suits who have no clue at all what the interviewees do for a living. Heaven knows what the basis for hiring will be. Cost is an important issue, and applicants with little more than a Mickey Mouse Club diploma will come cheapest, and after all, netadmin is just netadmin, isn't it? It can't be that hard, can it? We have to think of the bottom line, do we not?

And so it goes. MCPs or their equivalent end up populating the most sensitive areas of the increasingly fragile Internet backbone. People in numbers without individual recognition are less inclined to assume responsibility in times of crisis. The crisis hits and it's a Saturday, and no one wants to help. Perhaps the employer will not pay overtime for them to help. Perhaps they are glad they are off for the weekend and they've unplugged their phones and studiously avoid their e-mail. Most likely they do not have the expertise to help anyway.

The Internet is a lifeline more important to us every day. Corporations and surfers rely on their providers, who in turn rely on their providers, who in turn rely on the backbone of the Internet itself. It's a house of cards where one false move spells catastrophe. Catastrophes such as 29 June do not happen often, but it should be a comforting thought that adequately experienced personnel are on hand to divert them. Such is not the case today. Like Gordon Gecko, or like Bernie Ebbers, backbone providers are increasingly interested only in milking every single last penny out of their enterprises without throwing a single penny back in. They gut their companies, and in so doing they gut the Internet.

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