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Serviceman's Log

What do you make of a situation where several PCs in an office simultaneously fail for no apparent reason and then replacement machines also fail, along with other gear? It's just got to be a power supply problem but you?ll never guess what caused it.

by the Serviceman

Items Covered This Month

• A real computer mystery

• Diversification is the key

• Corolla door locking system

• Sony STR-K840P amplifier

*Dave Thompson, runs PC Anytime in Christchurch, NZ.

It seems everyone loves a mystery, except of course when it costs money to resolve.

The following events happened to me a few years ago and I still hark back to it to remind myself to think outside the box when confronted with a difficult problem. It all started after we had helped a client move their shipping container operation into new premises in a new industrial estate just out of town.

Their purpose-built building had been cabled and fitted out especially for their particular office set-up and this work had been done in advance on our advice. It made things a whole lot easier for us when it came to setting up their office network and meant that networking two desktop and two laptop computers, several printers and a photocopier took far less time and effort than usual.

By contrast, such moves typically involve trying to figure out how the building has been wired (if at all) and then trying to shoe-horn the client’s existing IT infrastructure into it. It’s not much fun!

So this move was a breeze, with every­thing quickly up and running and a gaggle of stressed but happy clients starting to relax as their worries rapidly faded. They had been convinced things wouldn’t go as smoothly as we had assured them they would. We’d said all along that with the right planning, it would simply be a matter of unpacking everything at the new office and plugging it in, which is exactly how it all happened.

Unfortunately, it was the lull before the storm. The following morning, when I arrived at the workshop, there was a message on the answering machine asking me to contact them as soon as possible, because “nothing was working”. A phone call later I was none the wiser; it was obvious something was very wrong but what they were telling me didn’t make any sense. Everything had been working fine the night before but by morning the network has dropped out and to make matters worse, some of the computers wouldn’t boot properly.

I did my best to convince the client that this sort of thing was relatively normal and that teething problems were to be expected with any new major IT installation, especially if it involves moving into a new building. The client seemed sympathetic but I could tell that the afterglow of the previous day’s success was now significantly less rosy.

Not just the computers

I duly arrived on-site to find an alarm technician checking out the door and window sensors and a puzzled-looking telephone technician poking and prodding the controller box with one of those red-handled, insulated-shaft screwdrivers they all seem to use. My client and his staff were sitting at their computers trying to “see” each other on the network but having no joy while the alarm “beeped” annoyingly every few seconds just to add to the already tense atmosphere.

The team insisted that everything had been going fine when they left the previous evening. However, when they had arrived this morning, this was how they found things, with the alarm and phones not working properly (hence the technicians looking busy) and the computers either not starting at all or shutting down randomly by themselves. So what had happened in the meantime?

It sounded to me like a power “event” had taken things out and that’s the road I started down. After all, we were stuck out in an industrial wasteland, with likely grubby mains power supplies and dozens of factories nearby with whopping great machinery starting and stopping all hours of the day.

I decided then and there that regardless of what we discovered, I would recommend my client install a UPS (uninterruptible power supply) for each workstation and maybe even for the peripherals. It’s something we wouldn’t usually do due to the added cost and besides, the mains power supply is usually pretty stable – discounting the odd earthquake that is!

When I broached the subject with the other technicians present, they looked at me like I had just suggested aliens had landed, so I left them to their own devices. I had more pressing issues to deal with, such as getting the client’s computers up and running so they could conduct their daily business.

Unfortunately, that wasn’t going to be easy; only one of their four machines booted to the operating system and it wasn’t the “main” machine. The main machine was a desktop unit that we had designated as the “server”. It had all their vital data files on it and it was refusing to boot.

After giving it a quick once-over, I diagnosed a faulty motherboard and that meant that possibly the CPU and/or the memory had also failed. And while we had decent back-up (last carried out just before the shift), I hoped that the data drive was still intact so that we wouldn’t have to scramble to put everything back together. Theoretically, all I needed was another similar (if not identical) box. I could then “throw” the data drive from the failed machine into it and get things back up and running relatively quickly.

But of course, it wasn’t going to be that simple. There’s always a “gotcha”.

The “gotcha” in this case was that I couldn’t touch any of these computers because they were leased from a local retailer and they had the say on any repairs. This was frustrating because my client had previously turned down an excellent quote from us for a system in favour of leasing lower-spec hardware from one of our competitors.

It meant that my clients were now dead in the water and there was nothing I could do but advise they either take the computers in for repair or try to get someone out to do it as soon as possible. However, I could see that getting someone out would be a waste of time because they’d have to take the machines back to their workshop anyway.

It was at this point that my client began to lose the distinction between where my services ended and the other company’s began. My advice didn’t go down too well and pressure was applied for me to “fast-track” some repairs in order to speed things along. In other words, couldn’t I do something since I was already on the premises? And couldn’t I take the computers to my competitors to get them fixed since I knew what was wrong?

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