When all else fails, offer a catastrophic solution


Flashback to the early 1980s, when this IT pilot fish is working on a system for monitoring oil pipelines in Venezuela.

And that does mean in Venezuela. "A small team of us were sent to the western part of the country to install systems out in jungle, spread out over 20 miles," says fish.

"In the middle, the Venezuelans built a concrete bunker for our central computer, which every few seconds gathered data to monitor the whole spread-out system."

Aside from that, infrastructure is in short supply -- for example, the closest phone lines are in a nearby town, a total of three pay phones guarded by a soldier.

So to send data back to the server in the bunker, the pipeline-monitoring computers each have a radio with an antenna pointed at the bunker's radio tower.

But it's impossible to see the radio tower from 10 or 20 miles away in order to aim the antennas. And though fish and his crew are promised handheld radios, they don't show up either, no matter how many times fish's team repeats the request.

"So the chief engineer went into the little nearby town and had a guy build him a 'mortar' from a reinforced metal tube and make some some 'rounds,'" fish says.

"The idea was to shoot off a round from the central site, so that someone at the top of a remote tower could see approximately where the central computer was, to crudely aim their antenna at it."

There are a few problems with this plan. For one, the remote towers are nothing like sturdy -- they're basically vertical ladders held in place with guy wires, and not exactly safe for observers.

For another, the pipelines themselves carry a mixture of oil, water and natural gas. Sending up what are essentially fireworks near the spot where all the pipelines come together is not exactly the safest practice so near to a highly explosive gas.

Fortunately, if anything does go wrong, there's a fire-suppression system -- fed by a huge tank that supplies all water for the bunker. "That tank had to be refilled by tanker trucks bringing in water," says fish. "One day the toilets didn't work, because that big tank had run out and not been refilled. Until it was, that also meant the fancy fire-suppression system was also useless.

"I do remember seeing the mortar and the homemade rounds to be used in it, but I don't recall seeing it actually used. Most likely the Venezuelans gave us the radios at that point, to avoid blowing up their brand-new central monitoring station, freshly carved out of the jungle."

It's an IT jungle out there. Tell Sharky about it. Send me your true tales of IT life at sharky@computerworld.com. You'll snag a snazzy Shark shirt every time I use one. Add your comments below, and read some great old tales in the Sharkives.

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