AND THE WINNER IS? - Part I

by Wayne M. Krakau Krakau - Chicago Computer Guide, February 1996 - NewsWare, September 1996

Oscar, Emmy, Tony, Grammy, and countless other awards are presented each year in the entertainment field. I’ve decided to create my own award - the SI (pronounced like a nickname for "Simon") for the systems integration field.

In my scheme of things (Hey, it’s my award, so I get to define the rules!), the SI awards can be both in positive and negative categories. Also, I make up the categories and choose the winner. This eliminates all those nasty levels of bureaucracy that usually interject politics into the award process. The results are stored on my hard disk until such time as I E-mail my column to my editor. Forget Price, Waterhouse and those other accounting firms. Finally, I can give out the awards any time I want.

To start on a positive note, the first SI Award is for Honoring a Warranty Far Above and Beyond the Call of Duty. It goes to Micropolis Corporation for work on their Radion LT 4200 model RAID (Redundant Array of Inexpensive Disks) systems. In two separate incidents Micropolis absolutely shocked me in their willingness to back their product.

In the first incident, the RAID unit had been placed in the far corner of a small storeroom that had been converted into a computer room. For its protection, it was surrounded by a tower-cased server, a large uninterruptible power supply, and an industrial-style heavy steel table. Access was further impeded by the monitor, keyboard, and tape drive atop the table. Surely, no one could inadvertently damage the RAID system - or so we thought.

A few weeks after installation, a technician from a security company was installing an entry system for the computer room door. He was using a huge rechargeable Mikita drill to punch through concrete and brick walls. When he wanted to recharge the appropriately large detachable battery, he plugged it into its equally weighty recharging unit and started looking for an open electrical socket. The first one he found was in a bank of open sockets located directly above - you guessed it - the RAID system!

He reached across all of the aforementioned obstacles (he was tall and had a long reach) to plug in his recharger. He then accidentally let go of the combined recharger-battery unit, but retained his grip on the cord. This caused the unit to swing, pendulum-style, into the side of the RAID system, immediately destroying two of the three disk modules, while subtly damaging the third.

Unbelievably, Micropolis shipped two replacement modules next day air at their expense! The boxes even included repacking instructions for the old modules and a prepaid return-shipment sticker! A few days later, when the damage to the third module was discovered, they replaced it, too.

In the second incident, we safeguarded the RAID system in a similar protected position. It was sheltered by a tower-cased server, an uninterruptible power supply, and a heavy wooden table. A large empty space was left in front of the RAID so nobody could trip over or otherwise bump it.

Some time after the installation, someone at the client site decided that the empty space was going to waste and would be better put to use as a storage area for software boxes. They completely filled the space with tightly packed boxes. You could have easily predicted the result. Someone tripped and accidentally kicked the first box in the row. Newton’s Laws being what they are, the force of the blow was transmitted to the last box in the row and, hence, to the RAID system, crashing one of the three disk modules. As in the previous case, Micropolis immediately cross-shipped a replacement module along with the prepaid return-shipment sticker.

I have reread the fine print in the Micropolis warranty several times since these incidents, and I can’t find anything to indicate that either dropping heavy objects on or kicking of their products should be covered. Nevertheless, they covered both of these clients.

The second SI Award is for Selfless Devotion to Technical Support. This award goes to American Power Conversion (APC), the power protection device manufacturer, for their extraordinary treatment of my clients in multiple situations in which APC wasn’t directly backing an existing product nor were they in a position to influence future sales of their products.

While I have encountered several examples of this outstanding attitude from APC, the most dramatic occurred with a client who was having mysterious crashes, lockups, and communications glitches. We had installed a new network and kept getting calls for help from this client. Workstations were locking up randomly, the fax/modem would lock up for hours at a time, and the most telltale symptom, the images on some monitors were "dancing".

The client had just had a complete electrical rewiring job, so we were initially denied permission even to explore the possibility of electrical problems. Any discussion of electrical problems was perceived by the client as a smokescreen for my company’s incompetence or outright fraud. We completely retested the 10Base-T cable system, and replaced motherboards, video cards, network interface cards, and even disk controller cards in an effort to pin down the cause of the crashes.

Finally, the client let us borrow an additional Uninterruptible Power Supply (the server already had one) from APC’s local office to try to solve the communications problems. The theory was that the UPS could cure a power irregularity. The client refused to believe that a UPS without a valid ground can’t do its job. He even declined my offer to speak directly to an APC engineer for an explanation of the details.

Meanwhile, I spent hours on the phone with APC technicians, eventually working my way up the line until I was dealing directly with one of their top engineers. He patiently educated me on the intricacies of power protection, especially regarding interference. He emphasized that without a legitimate ground, all bets were off.

Using this information, I was able to alter the client’s screen images at will by turning various fans and lights on and off. At last, I had evidence that electrical problems existed. The client brought back the electrician and spent several thousand dollars on rewiring the rewiring! Funny - I would have thought the electrician would fix what the APC engineer had described as below-standard wiring practices as part of his warranty work - for free!

Still, even after having extensive direct talks with APC, the client trusted the electrician and refused to take APC’s suggestion to call in an engineer specializing in power to check the system. APC even offered to lend thousands of dollars worth of test equipment to the client and to assist in interpreting the results. The client declined.

Some months later I heard from the client that there were occasional crashes if all of their computers were on at once. The client again refused to believe that power problems could be the cause, since the electrician said the wiring was just fine and that the ground passed his test. His only test, however, was with a standard multimeter, not the specialized instruments offered by APC. That is how I left things. I couldn’t force the client to hire a power specialist and he still doesn’t trust my analysis.

Throughout this project APC was amazingly supportive. They expended dozens of hours trying to help in a situation that would not earn them money and was obviously not a part of any warranty. That was an award winning performance!

Next month, I’ll present awards covering the dark side of the Force.

1996, Wayne M. Krakau