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The Art of Improvisation

This is the second post in my four part series for the #SQLNewBlogger Challenge. You can read the first part here.

On Saturday, 28 March 2015, I moved three servers and various networking equipment from an old custom server cabinet, made of wood with a steel door and plywood backing, to a brand new steel APC 42U rack with appropriate door, panels and mounting screws.

For a change, very little blood was spilled, and my right hand only cramped up afterwards.

Working with hardware like this reminds me that there is so much more to Information Technology than software. It is literally the T in IT.

This is also the part of IT that never goes according to plan. You design your infrastructure diagramme, where each device and server will go; you mount the rails, the shelves and patch panel; you get new patch leads to run to the switches; you ensure it all follows good practice.

And then as you go along, you realise that the switches do not have front-mounting brackets because the client threw them away, so your first plan goes out the window, and you improvise. Now that shelf has to move up, and the monitor and keyboard will have to make do on the half-length shelf, installed upside down to leverage the lip to keep them from falling off. The fiber cable was installed sideways into its box, so rack-mounting it is impossible. The additional power strip was using an extension lead which is a big no-no. The labelling of hardware was missing or incorrect.

Improv: not just for actors.

Physically moving equipment is a very risky proposition on a good day. Everything must be unplugged, which is fraught with issues relating to power surges: hard drives fail, switches blow up, and firewalls give up the magic smoke. None of it is good. There is also the risk of bumping or dropping several thousand dollars’ worth of server (which I have done in the past).

All this is to say that there is a lot going on and only a short amount of time in which to do it. We had a window of nine hours and we finished with fifteen minutes to spare. There was no lunch break. Things came up that were unexpected or downright broken, and we had to improvise.

I respect and admire the women and men who work behind the scenes, who build servers and configure networks and run cables and wire up data centres and make sure the infrastructure is sound. These are unsung heroes in our field and ought to be recognised. They are improvising all the time.

It takes dropping a screwdriver on to a server during a shelf installation that reminds you of what is important about this gig: all of it. Every component is equally important. Just ask the disaster recovery experts out there.

Hug your hardware technician next time you see him. Thank your network cabler next time she has to run CAT-5e so that you can run the newest software that will be obsolete next Tuesday.

If you are ever feeling cocky and need a reality check, unplug all of your equipment, untangle all the wires, and plug everything back in again.

When it does not work the first time, learn to improvise. You will be grateful you tried, because when you have to recover from a catastrophic failure, improvisation is one of your critical skills.

Stay tuned for my next piece in this series.