Remember: Respect your technology elders

As a seasoned IT Pro, I’ve seen technology advance leaps and bounds. However, recently I had a stark reminder that the older technology I grew up with shouldn’t be forgotten in our quest for the ‘new’.

It all started during a typical day in the office when suddenly I heard, “Oh Geeze," exclaimed from my colleague, Daniel. "That thing is ancient! Why would they give him that?"

At this point it may be worth mentioning that this was our newest IT Pro recruit, and at only 20-something he looked more like he belonged in One Direction than in the office.

Intrigued, and with a serious case of office FOMO (that’s 'fear of missing out' to the non-millennials out there) I popped my head over the wall and asked "what is?"

He showed me a text message, sent to him from a friend - an engineer who worked for an oil company. There, his brand new iPhone 6 displayed an image of a laptop we could only describe as “vintage”:

laptop

That’s a Toshiba Tecra 510CDT, which was cutting edge. Back in 1997.

"Wow." I said. "Those were amazing. I worked on a ton of those. They were serious workhorses – you could practically drop one from a four story building and it would still work. I wanted one so badly, but could never afford it."

"OK, back in the day I'm sure they were great." said Daniel dismissively. "But what the hell is he going to do with it now? Can it even run an OS anymore?"

I realised he was coming from a particular frame of reference that is common to all of us in IT: Newer is better. Period. With the odd exceptions – ahem, Windows M.E. – the latest version, be it hardware or software, is always a step up from whatever came before.

While true, it leads to a frame of mind that is patently un-true: a belief that what is old is also irrelevant. It’s a dangerous line of thought, especially for IT Pros and almost always leads to unnecessary mistakes, and avoidable failures.

In fact, ask any IT Pro who’s been at it for a decade, and you'll hear story after story about the foundational technology still a part of the modern office environments today:

Check your inputs

Back when dinosaurs roamed the earth and programmers used COBOL, one of the fundamental techniques drilled into their heads was "check your inputs" – sound familiar?

Thinking about the latest version of exploits, be it a SSLv3 device like 'Poodle', SQL injection, or any other plethora of web based security problems, the fundamental flaw is the server NOT checking its inputs, for sanity.

CORBA knowledge

Nobody needs to know the CORBA database structure anymore, right? Except that a major monitoring tool was originally developed on CORBA and that foundation has stuck.

Which is why, if you try to create a folder-inside-a-folder more than 3 times, the entire system corrupts. CORBA (one of the original object-oriented databases) could only handle 3 levels of object containership.

Block size matters

Do you remember agonising over block size when you formatted a server disk? Not many people do. But understanding how block size affects performance-vs-lost-space has a direct correlation to choices you make formatting a disk within a VM today.

Pin the serial port

Older rev's of industrial motion-control systems used specific pin-outs on the serial port. The new USB-to-Serial cables don't mimic those pin-outs correctly, and trying to upload a program with the new cables will render the entire system useless.

That’s why Daniel’s friend was handed one of those venerable Tecra laptops. It had a standard serial port and it was preloaded with the vendor's DOS-based ladder-logic programming utility. Nobody expected it to run Windows 10, but it fulfilled a role that modern hardware simply couldn't have done.

You may be thinking: that’s an interesting story, but aside from some interesting anecdotes and a few bizarre use-cases, does this have any relevance to our work day-today? The answer would be a resounding yes!

We live in a world where servers, storage, and now the network are rushing toward a quantum singularity of virtualisation.

And the “old-timers” are laughing hysterically as they watch us run in circles, inventing new words to describe techniques they learned at the beginning of their career; making mistakes they solved decades ago; and (worst of all) dismissing everything they know as utterly irrelevant.

Think I’m exaggerating? SAN and NAS look suspiciously like DASD, just on faster hardware. Services like Azure and AWS, for all their glitz and automation, aren't as far from rented time on a mainframe as we'd like to imagine. And when my company replaces my laptop with a fancy "appliance" that connects to Citrix VDI session, it reminds me of nothing as much as the VAX terminals I supported back in the day.

My point is I’m neither a techno-Ecclesiastes shouting "there is nothing new under the sun!" or some IT hipster who was into the cloud before it was cool. We’d do well to remember that everything we do, and every technology we use, had its origins in something much older than 20 minutes ago.

If we take the time to understand that foundational technology we have the chance to avoid past mistakes, leverage undocumented efficiencies built into the core of the tools, and build on ideas elegant enough to have withstood the test of time.

Leon Adato, Head Geek, SolarWinds.