DOWN FOR THE COUNT - PART II

by Wayne M. Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, April 1993

To review, we had discovered the following errors in examining the network in question:

1. No printers or queues had been defined;

2. Two NICs (Network Interface Cards) had been defined when only one existed.

3. One end of network cable had a messy, home-made terminator.

4. The other end had a similarly butchered terminator.

5. Neither end of the LAN cable was grounded.

6. The cable was resting directly on an under-desk heating unit.

7. The first workstation was being booted off a floppy disk even though it had a useable hard disk.

I had just run TXD (Thomas-Conrad Corporation, Austin, Texas), the network diagnostic program and was surprised to discover that it could not even find the workstation that was running it as it scanned the network. This indicated a distortion of the electrical signal on the wire so terrible that the NIC in this workstation couldn't detect a signal that it had just transmitted! What's the old saw about it being too noisy to hear yourself think?

Since I was still in the open main reception area of the lawyer's office, it was easy to trace the cable to the next workstation. It had no obvious problems, but something just didn't feel right. No, I'm not Yoda with some amazing ability to tap into the "Force" (my whiskers aren't as scraggly and I'm a lot taller), but I am alert enough to notice a tactile difference between cables when I have recently done a lot of work with that type of cable. The fact that I couldn't find any standard marking on the cable strengthened my suspicions.

This workstation actually booted off its own hard disk (Hey, that's one in a row!), so I continued the search, following the cable until it entered the wall. From there, I could deduce that it went straight up into the ceiling to pass over an intervening doorway on the way to the first office. Using a ladder, I removed the ceiling panels adjacent to the doorway. I located the cable and started tracing its path, hand-over-hand along the edge of the doorway.

That's where I found an inline connector (the kind used to connect two lengths of cable) that had a base with two holes. It was attached with two screws through those holes to the side of the office's massive heating unit in the ceiling! This metal to metal contact formed a ground. Thin Ethernet needs to be grounded at one arbitrarily chosen end, not in the middle! That was count 8.

Surprised, but undaunted, I continued the search. (Alright, it's not a quest for the lost Ark, but it does require some detective skills.) The cable continued through the ceiling. That's when I realized that this was still plain old PVC (polyvinyl chloride) sheathed cable even though it was now running through a drop ceiling. This was a major violation of the local building and fire codes which specify the use of either PVC cable inside of conduit or a plenum (a metal cable channel) or the use of plenum cable (Teflon coated instead of PVC) on its own. Some localities don't even allow Teflon cable.

Burning PVC gives off incredible quantities of thick smoke, filled with poison gasses (including that old executioner's favorite, cyanide gas). It also burns as fast as fuse wire. (Picture the introductory scene of both the old and new "Mission Impossible" series.) Violating these codes can bring both the obvious fines and the less apparent criminal and civil liability if anyone was injured or even killed in a fire. That was count 9.

Next, I found a T-connector. This is the cabling version of a three-way intersection. It was the same device that is used to attach a PC to the network cable via its NIC. What in the world was it doing in the middle of a length of a cable strung through a drop ceiling? Did someone expect to put a PC up there?

My questions were answered almost immediately when I pulled a rats' nest of cable out of the wall insulation consisting of multiple t-connectors strung together with short lengths of cable to form, in effect, a star configuration! It looked like something that an 8 year old put together while tinkering with an Erector Set. (Am I dating myself? Does anyone else remember them?)

I stared at the "star" while I tried to figure out just how much drugs and/or alcohol had been consumed before this cable plant was designed. Surely, I thought, no one in a sober state would do it, much less the allegedly "professional" cabling firm that the original LAN dealer hired.

I still could not believe what I had found, so I got off the ladder and checked each office. The confirmation was there. Each PC had its own terminator (with bonus points for each one being hand-made junk). It was true. The network had been designed as a star with one long leg (two workstations and the server were on the front office leg), with the center of the star made of the group of t-connectors. The end of each leg of the star was terminated (poorly). This was count 10 (TILT!!!!). Let's turn over the numbers, now. This game is lost.

Just to cap off my day, while I checked the individual offices, I finally found a length of cable that had a label. It was Radio Shack CB cable!!!!!! Yes, that's CB as in Citizens' Band Radio. Thin Ethernet cable is supposed to be RG-58 A/U rated at 50 Ohms impedance. Even most RG-58 cable isn't good enough. In a pinch, I have attempted used Radio Shack RG-58, and it wasn't the appropriate quality rating for Ethernet. (This was a while back, so they might sell good stuff, now.) Who knows what kind of signal you can get over this CB cable.

The LAN dealer (remember, he's Novell Authorized) referred me to the cable installer. The head (term used very loosely) of that firm stated that they specialized in robotics! I have no idea what they were doing with cable plants. He (you knew it was going to be a "he", already, if you had read my column on "The Brother-in-Law Syndrome") stated that since they knew wiring (their systems contain many wires) they were eminently qualified. (Riiiiiiiiight. And I'll let you have this genuine, real, honest-to-God Rolex watch for only $39.93 in three easy installments.)

When I explained that the cable plant didn't follow standards, he became very defensive and demanded to know who the "jerk" was that made up these stupid standards. When I mentioned that the IEEE (Institute for Electrical and Electronics Engineers, the governing body for many standards, including Ethernet, which they call 802.3), he asked me who "the hell" they were and why were they sticking their noses into his cable systems. This from a person allegedly involved in robotics, where electronics expertise should be paramount.

I tried to explain to him that the "rules" were not arbitrary, as he suggested, but were based on two ideas. The first was a bit of common sense in that the standards had to be commercially feasible. The second, and most important, was based on THE LAWS OF PHYSICS!!!!! As long as we can't "warp" the space-time continuum (ala Star Trek) we were stuck with these "laws", and he had better learn to live with them or he should leave this dimension for one in which his own pet laws applied!

In the end, the entire cable plant was yanked and restrung. Other than still using PVC sheathed cable, all standards were followed. I wish that I could say that this tale ended with everyone living happily ever after, but I can't. First, the lawyer attempted to get me to pirate Multimate across the network. I declined, installed it so that it could be used by only one key legal secretary, and suggested that he get the appropriate number of licenses (preferably not Multimate).

Later, I learned that the lawyer stiffed the LAN dealer to the tune of $3000 supposedly in a dispute over modems, but really to save money. He dared the dealer to sue him, stating that he could send a team of his in-house attorneys into the battle and keep him tied up in court for years, with no cost to himself, but with high legal costs to the dealer.

Subsequently, this same lawyer tried to alter the network configuration to allow him to pirate Multimate so everyone could use it. This attempt messed things up so badly that the network wouldn't even come up anymore. His request to the LAN dealer for help was met with a demand for prepayment at a premium rate. The lawyer refused. The last I heard, he was calling every LAN dealer and "consultant" he could find to locate one who knew enough to repair his system, but was unethical enough to aid him in pirating Multimate and other software.

Somehow, I just can't bring myself to wish him good luck. Perhaps I should just refer him to the cable installer. That seems like a match made in heaven (or parts south).

                                    1993, Wayne M. Krakau