In heist movies, the mastermind usually gets away scot-free with the loot. In this "true IT blooper," life imitates art. Not only does the mastermind behind this IT mistake avoid detection, he ends up a hero.
Every "true IT blooper" comes directly from a SearchWindowsManageability user. For obvious reasons, some contributors choose to remain anonymous. In this tale, we'll protect the guilty party by calling him Henry Gondorff .
In the days before deregulation, Henry Gondorff worked for a switching system manufacturing plant for Chicago's only telephone services provider. The plant used a customized minicomputer that ran standard switching programs, as well as software for testing new equipment. Except for the testing software, the plant's minicomputer was very similar to the ones it manufactured for telephone switching systems out in the field.
Rather than working on the minicomputer's master console, an ADM dumb terminal, Gondorff did his administration tasks on an Hewlett-Packard terminal. "It had just a few more smarts than the ADM dumb terminal," he said.
One day, Gondorff showed another employee how to do a general search of memory. Mind you, he did the demonstration on the employee's terminal. "It was a neat little command that allowed me to look for a certain byte string," he said. "The command was very versatile and allowed me to do an automatic replacement of memory at the same time." The command also had wild card capabilities for the search and replacement strings. So, when Gondorff input the command, he "used the wild card for the search, which would match every byte in the core memory including the operating system."
Now, when executing this command, Gondorff was used to having to hit the "send" button on the HP terminal. Then, he would hit enter to get to the other field, where he would then put in the wild card again. That way, "each byte would be replaced by its original byte," he said.
Unfortunately, the ADM dumb terminal did not protect the fields. "So, when I hit the enter key, it was like hitting the send key," he said. "The result is, every byte of core memory was replaced with zeroes, right up to the program doing the replacing."
Immediately, 25 users' terminals crashed. "There they were, twiddling their thumbs with nothing to do," Gondorff said.
Usually, disaster recovery processes were handled by the engineers who programmed the system. If they were not around when a glitch occurred, it was left to Gondorff to do a reload. "There was no hard drive on the system," Gondorrf explained. "Those were the days of mag tape and punch cards."
In most cases, recovering from a system crash took very little time. "It was usually not a problem as the system was NEVER powered off, and the bootstrap loader was usually left intact," Gondorff said. "Even power failures were not a problem, as the system had core memory."
This time around, however, the bootstrap loader was not intact. As a result, "it took almost an hour to cold-boot the system from the mag tape," Gondorff said. "After several power cycles, and a lot of scrambling, I was able to reload the system."
Gondorff is sure that he would have been fired if the word had gotten out that he had caused the crash, "even if it was an accident." However, the employee who witnessed the mistake kept mum. In the end, said Gondorff, "the boss thought I was the hero for managing to do the recovery!"
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Henry Gondorff is a character in the movie, "The Sting." Played by Paul Newman, Gondorrf was the greatest con-artist ever known.
This was first published in April 2002