Networks, Phones, and Black Magic

Old TelecomWell folks, sometimes other things intrude on my normal life stuck here in front of this computer screen. Today, it was a rather large “emergency” project for a company that found the network and phone system in their new office not working. I love that kind of work. It’s always exciting to troubleshoot these kinds of problems. Of course, it would be easier if these people would just hire us to do the stuff from scratch. But there is something wonderful to go in and see an old and complex system. It’s like archaeology. You can see how it all started and how things were added over time. And step by step they take a well designed system and turn it into a nightmare.

This one was especially interesting, because the initial stuff was professional hardware, and it was installed correctly. But absolutely no care was taken to document it. The patch bay had on it only a single cryptic number that didn’t seem to have anything to do with anything in the office area. Some of office outputs were labeled and some were not. And of course, there is the very old analogue telephone infrastructure there—the building is about 50 years old. It is still all hooked in, but of course none of it is being used. Now the phones and the network are all through cable coaxial line.

I was a little anxious when I got the call. I feel totally secure with computer networks regardless of how complicated they are. But it’s been a few years since I’ve dealt with telephone systems. I had nothing to fear. Telephones are simpler today than they’ve ever been. It did, however, take me a little while to figure out what exactly was going on. Here’s a pet peeve of mine: no documentation. When I set up a network, I create a log book that I keep with the data hub. That provides all the information about what connects to what. And then it acts as a diary explaining all changes that have been made. Here, of course: nothing. But I did figure it out quickly enough.

It’s sad though. In the old days of analogue telephones, it was kind of romantic. It takes me back to the original Star Trek and Scott being a “miracle worker.” The telephone systems were such a nightmare of tiny wires that it made those of us who knew what we were doing kind of wizards. Now, I think any reasonably intelligent person could take a semester course on TCP/IP and know most of what I know. Maybe add a little knowledge of UDP and some better ways to deal with realtime issues, and clients might as well hire them.

But the fact remains that most people still have trouble with even the most basic networking. And when you are talking about business phone lines and different subnets, they probably still see people like me as wizards. But we all know better. If you’ve never done it, you owe it to yourself to check out an old telecom closet. They are things to behold. And you’ll wonder, “How did they keep all that straight?” And the answer is that to some extent, they didn’t. It was magic.

I remember hearing these stories of American contractors trying to get the electrical system in Iraq back working. And after years, it was worse than it had ever been. All I could think was that there were a bunch of young, well trained engineers who understood the proper way of how to do stuff. But they didn’t understand all the creativity of countless men who were making that system work under less than ideal conditions. I don’t know what they finally did, but there were only two real choices. Either start over from scratch or hire back those Ba’ath Party members who understood the magical incantations of the electrical grid. We old timers still have our uses.


I’ll probably be working all day tomorrow, so not much posting except maybe in the morning and then in the evening.

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About Frank Moraes

Frank Moraes is a freelance writer and editor online and in print. He is educated as a scientist with a PhD in Atmospheric Physics. He has worked in climate science, remote sensing, throughout the computer industry, and as a college physics instructor. Find out more at About Frank Moraes.

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