Here be dragons

Oh! It cannot possibly be the NAS: that represents a large chunk of last year’s budget. It must be something else’. Twenty-one little words – I have put them right at the top of this column because they represent so much of what is irrational about the business of supporting networks, and because they left me quite speechless for a minute or two (long enough, as my friends will tell you, to set my new personal record). The clients in question are odd birds anyway, as while they are massive Lotus Notes users, all their internal technical staff are MCSEs who split their time between internal support and a portfolio of their own external clients (accumulated during a period when the organisation didn’t quite know whether or not it wanted to be in the network support business). Every so often I get a short – and typically useless – phone call from them. It is useless in two ways: first, because they normally do not ring me until it is far too late to deal with the actual source of the problem, and second because, while I have to delve deep into my skillset, I seldom make any money from these calls. Most often their aim is merely to have me underwrite some deeply held belief they have about a broken software product (almost always not Microsoft’s fault).

Here be dragons

I have very little time (literally) for this approach. For one thing, every software vendor makes mistakes, and sooner or later a support person will become involved in working around them. For another, the particular toolbox one encounters implanted in the heads of MCSE graduates exhibits just as many problems as the alien tools and technologies they find so terrifying, treacherous and suspicious. You may think I’m being overly dramatic about these reported reactions, but nothing could be further from the truth. It is almost as if, being in a job that has hardly any real emotional content, these MCSE maniacs lose their cool and their ability to stand detached, hence they populate the technically interesting parts of the computing landscape with all the superstitions that used to make medieval cartographers scrawl ‘Here be dragons!’ across those bits of the Pacific nobody had yet visited.

My simplest probe to detect this sort of organisational quicksand is to mention that my own home email delivery is done by a dual 450MHz Apple G4 running Lotus Notes under OS X. I’m sorry if any of you guys who have heard me say this are reading this, because the days when that was the case are now long gone, but that’s precisely the mix of software and hardware that will cause an MCSE maniac’s nape hair to bristle and make them back away, muttering ‘Crikey, this bloke’s a nuttah’ in Del Boy Trotter tones. The committed MCSE graduate prefers his network made from strictly single-processor servers and PCs: he wants Windows 2000, while grumbling that he would far prefer NT 4 (more modern tribe members may say that they have ‘jumped’ over 2000 altogether and gone straight to XP). He hankers for the days of ArcServe in preference to any other backup program and looks upon the limitations of Microsoft Exchange as a benefit, mostly because the hard-wired 16GB storage limit in those basic Exchange versions he’s familiar with enables him to adopt the role of stern disciplinarian toward his users, who would otherwise walk all over him with high-priority requests.

Such chaps love McAfee and Norton for anti-virus and Internet security, despite the fact that both these products can become wide open to attacks and exploits (the root of the problem being the ‘invisible cessation of updates’ trick McAfee so painfully applies if it decides its licence has expired). For some odd reason, the various Java exploits and CoolWebSearch hijackers never appear on the tribe’s radar – infections are always assumed to be the fault of some degenerate who’s been looking at dodgy pictures (a diagnosis, which, like so much of their knowledge, is based in the world of 1999-vintage malware: nowadays, most infections and trojans are caught from sites with entirely PG-rated content).

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