Jackass IT: Stunts, Idiocy, and Hero Hacks

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We've all been there: an IT problem so ridiculous that only a ridiculous solution can solve it.

It could be server on the brink of shutting down all operations, a hard drive that won't power up vital data, or a disgruntled ex-employee who's hidden vital system passwords on the network. Just when all seems lost, it's time to get creative and don your IT daredevil cap, then fire up the oven, shove the end of a pencil into the motherboard, or route the whole city network through your laptop to get the job done.

[ Also on InfoWorld: For more IT hijinks and absurd assignments, see "True IT confessions," "Stupid admin tricks," and "Dirty duty on the front lines of IT" | Cash in on your IT experiences by sending your war tale from the IT trenches to offtherecord@infoworld.com. If we publish it, we'll keep you anonymous and send you a $50 American Express gift cheque. ]

Whether you're keeping vital systems humming, extending the life of faulty hardware in dire situations, or simply hunting for sport, knowing when to throw out the manual and do something borderline irresponsible is essential to day-to-day IT work.

Here are a few poignant examples of stunts and solutions that required a touch of inspired insanity to pull off. Add yours in the comments below, or send them to InfoWorld's Off the Record blog to keep a lid on the true identities of the people involved.

Jackass IT stunt No. 1: Route city services through a laptop

Ever wonder whether you could route an entire city network through a laptop running Fedora? Take a seat. Or better yet, leave the chair for your laptop. You'll need to balance it somewhere to keep city services up and operational through a two-day snowstorm.

It started out innocently, with a sizable city network core Layer 3 switch showing signs of failure and causing network instability. Errors logged to the console pinpointed the supervisor engine. Cisco was called around 10 a.m., and a replacement was slated for delivery by 2 p.m. As long as the current supervisor could keep the network more or less functional for four hours, help was on the way.

Cue Mother Nature and her blizzard machine. The call came back at noon. There was no way to get the proper part to the site before the following day due to the storm. As luck would have it, the production supervisor finally gave out minutes later, and the city's fiber network went dark. With no backup Layer 3 supervisor engine and several hundred ports in that switch, including all the servers and edge switch trunk links, there didn't seem to be anything that could be done until the next day, leaving city services bereft, including the police and fire departments.

A compatible Layer 2 supervisor for the core switch was located on site, and a plan was hatched. While this new supervisor wouldn't bring the network up by itself, it could run the switch ports on the core -- and a laptop could do the rest.

After a feverish half-hour configuring the switch and setting up 802.1q trunking and routing on a Dell Latitude running Fedora Linux, the city network was back up and running, with all traffic routing through a single interface on the laptop balanced on a chair in the data center.

As it turned out, the replacement supervisor took another day to arrive due to the inclement weather, leaving the city at the mercy of this bubblegum and duct-tape fix for almost 48 hours. It ran without a hiccup. Suffice it to say, a cold spare supervisor was procured following this event.

Jackass IT stunt No. 2: Set storage devices to 350 degrees

Set your time machine for 1995 -- when 5.25-inch hard drives contained as much as 9GB of data, if they were really expensive -- and preheat your oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.

Of course, back then you could fit an awful lot of information in 9GB, including the entire mail spool of a 5,000-user dial-up ISP. But when that disk decides to stop spinning up after a power outage, you might have a problem or two -- especially when it's discovered that the 2GB DDSII DAT drive has been stretching tapes for the past several months and nobody knew until now.

The problem wasn't access -- the disk presented to the SCSI controller just fine -- but it also didn't seem to spin up at all. It would whine and the motors would click, but the spindle didn't appear to be spindling. Lacking any other options, a trick from an even older era of MFM and RLL disks was put into practice: bake the drive.

An oven was set to 350, and the full-height 5.25-inch disk was placed on a cookie sheet in the middle rack. Bake for 5 minutes, remove, do not let cool, plug immediately into power and a controller, and turn on the computer. Voilà, the grease that had hardened around the spindle had loosened enough to permit the platters to spin and the data was recovered - and immediately copied to two spare drives.

Although it was speculated that the disk might be best served with a chilled Chianti and rice, we'll leave it to you to whip up and wolf down what is sure to be a culinary delight.

Next page: Passwords on the network, erasers on the motherboard

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