How to build a really bad network

I used to gauge how poor the support relationship between a business and the company contracted to look after their systems was from the amount of fluff in their server.

How to build a really bad network

The age of the box isn’t a reliable guide, nor is the operating system version (although I greet the presence of Windows Small Business Server as a sure sign of trouble).

But I’ve now added a new omen to my book of Evil Signs: the number of 2.5in external USB drives tucked in and around the server rack or box.

I’ve blogged about the correct name for these damnable devices – they’re not drives, they’re data mousetraps waiting to go “snap!” and send everything stored on them to that mysterious place where lost files go.

One month to meltdown

BT designed an entire advertising campaign for its home consumer, internet-based backup product, solely around the fact that these things give no visible, rational warning of approaching doom, no lifetime counter that says “one month to meltdown”.

They’re not drives, they’re data mousetraps waiting to go “snap!” and send everything stored on them to that mysterious place where lost files go

The first sign of trouble is when it’s too late and your partner (according to BT’s little drama) is in floods of tears asking where all our baby pictures went.

Of course, there is S.M.A.R.T. monitoring, but let’s be honest, how many people watch that for any of their drives, let alone those in external USB casings (and on top of that how many people have the stats on how reliable these warnings really are?).

My guess is that this technology was alright for a 40GB disk, meaning that the moment when S.M.A.R.T. starts to bleat is just early enough that you can recover your files onto another medium.

But these days that little box – the one you knock loose from the Exchange server when your hand quests in the dark at the back of a rack – could easily be holding 1TB of vital files.

It isn’t only baby pictures, either, but whole databases, software installations and multi-user project folders – the variety of stuff found on these things when I scan them is staggering. (And yes, before you ask, doing such a scan off my laptop does often stop the business dead, which makes for an exciting project meeting.)

Not professional

It horrifies me that any professional IT support business could seriously employ such a device as additional storage for a server. Whenever I come across one, I ask if anyone knows whether the server will continue to function if I remove the dangling box. Most often, they won’t know (although a few will yell “oh, don’t touch that! It’s really important” out of general principle).

In my most extreme case, there was an almost-empty, data-centre-grade, 1U-high, superfast rack server, in an otherwise-empty full-height 42U cabinet.

Yet this little 750GB disk would pendulum merrily about when the office was busy, because it contained their Exchange Message Store. They’d run out of room on the single 2.5in SAS disk located in their four-cage drive array you see, so “the engineer” had “brought in this helpful extension, and so cheap too!”

After I stopped hyperventilating, we spent a few hundred pounds online and a few days later some proper drives arrived. By using the standard manufacturer’s RAID management utility, we put these drives inside the cage and achieve some trivially simple fault-tolerance. That particular 2.5in USB drive is now in the drawer with their backup tapes.

I can understand using a USB drive to hold an Acronis or Paragon session, or take images of the existing storage. Maybe that’s how the rot sets in, when people start to imagine these devices are safe for more demanding scenarios.

Be dramatic

Personally, I believe in a bit of server-management theatre. Everyone should stage some occasionally to instil in people a sense of ownership and engagement with their IT overhead – I turn up with an ancient external drive called a Venus something, which may only present a terabyte, and may only use two 500GB IDE disks to do that, but is very heavy, and has a fan and a carrying handle on top.

This seems to reassure people that this is a step up in the world of nerds and that they’re now in good hands. No laughing at the back there!

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