If the system is failsafe, why is the network down?
November 5, 2013
A VG Serial: Doing Max Vinyl
When it happened, Annie Ogden was staring at her screen, trying to understand how they assigned certain trucks to certain routes. Suddenly right on her screen the green rectangles that represented trucks all acquired thick white outlines. Then the trucks themselves turned white and became blank white shapes. Two seconds later, the white shapes and the entire gray background grid vanished entirely. All that was left was a solid blue screen.
The computer had crashed. She had seen this sort of thing before.
What came next she had never seen before. Slowly, one after another, four words in plain white type appeared on the blue background.
Tris. TRS. Without. I.
The cryptic message stayed on her screen and could not be clicked away. She touched her mouse. No cursor, nothing. Nothing at all worked.
Rodriguez burst out of his office.
“Denial of service!” he shouted on the run, his door banging against the wall.
Whatever that meant.
He crossed through reception in three steps and disappeared into triage. She heard Rodriguez shouting orders before the door closed.
On her computer nothing reacted even now, neither the mouse, nor the buttons on the keyboard. Oh, well – she held the power button down for a few seconds, keeping one eye on the screen. The hammer approach, Michael used to say. When all else fails, power off. The screen with its strange message held for a few seconds, which was normal for a frozen machine. Then it switched off and the screen went blank.
In the distance she heard yelling. It was coming from the warehouse rooms, probably Rodriguez. She pressed the power button once more. Only the blue screen came on. Still frozen. No message this time.
She ignored the incoming calls, took off her headset, and walked into triage, and from there into testing. Over on the other side she spotted Roberto again.
“What’s going on? I had some weird stuff on my screen. Now my computer’s dead.”
“Lemme guess, something about Tris,” Roberto said.
“Yeah, that was a good one,” Murray said.
“Why’d she leave this job? What can you guys tell me about her?”
“I don’t know, but my guess would be she’s getting her revenge on old Max today,” Murray said.
“You probably did it yourself, you old bomb-thrower,” Roberto said, punching Murray on the arm. Murray looked seriously offended and ready to fight. But they were interrupted by Rodriguez race-walking through the crowd.
“You,” he said, grabbing Murray’s arm, then Roberto’s, “and you. They need you down in the server room. Here’s your chance to show your stuff. You,” he steered Annie back toward reception. “Come back up front with me.”
“Sorry I left my desk, Mr. Rodriguez. My computer’s down.”
“Everything’s down. I need you back on the phones with the system down.”
“It freaked me out, that message.”
“Something about Tris. You didn’t see it?”
Rodriguez laughed, but it was a thin, forced laugh, not like he really thought something was funny. “What a ditz. We’re TSR, not TRS. Looks like that tree-hugging bimbo’s dyslexic on top of all the rest.” He disappeared into his office.
Annie had just got her headset back on when the little bell over the front door chimed. A man in a brown suit with a shaved head stood there, squinting at her. He had on a white shirt in this heat, and a green silk tie with what looked like a pattern of birds across it.
“This is one hell of a place to locate.” He walked up to the desk and put out a hand to shake. “Bob Olson from Sterling Accounting. I called earlier. Come to get my boss’s Thinkpad back.”
At that same moment, in a different room, Max Vinyl stood with Manny Rodriguez and watched the geeks hunched over their screens, checking logfiles, rewriting protocols, re-configuring firewalls and backup systems. The whole thing looked like a game to see which one of twenty programmers could type the fastest. On his time!
“What in Christ are they all doing?” he demanded.
“The DMZ was breached,” Rodriguez said. “You know, the demilitarized zone? Max, tell me you remember this concept.” Manny went on talking to him, talking at him, his jaw moving, his tongue wagging, his teeth grinding as he described servers, networks, viruses. Max had a short attention span when it came to the technical side of things. A very short attention span. Especially when the whole network was down. Especially on a day when he had received an express envelope containing his own mutilated briefs and a note from a deranged lover.
“All this takes nanoseconds,” Rodriguez was saying. “No viruses and worms can get across the barrier into the critical files of the company.”
“If the system is so failsafe, why in Christ is our entire network down?”
“Sheer volume. Normally the system deals with a few dozen commands at any given moment. It could easily deal with hundreds or even thousands of different operations in a single second. But if that number runs into the millions, it takes the system down. The system chokes on the volume. We had over twenty million inquiries in the space of one and a half seconds. Twenty million, Max. Like twenty million spams. Classic denial-of-service attack.”
“Spare me this detail. Why didn’t you stop it? That’s what I pay you for, isn’t it?”
Rodriguez didn’t look up from the ground. Two dozen programmers stared intently at their screens. At last, in a quiet voice, he said, “Max, don’t be thick. We can talk in your office.”
He followed his manager out of the server room. It gave him a sickening feeling to see scores of workers standing around, unable to work. Was that his heart that was burning in his chest? Or just a sympathetic pain impulse radiating down from his stinging eyes? You couldn’t just tell ninety workers to go and sweep up or something. You couldn’t send them home either, since they would be back online soon.
“How long till we’re back up?”
“I’m getting status reports every fifteen minutes. Best guess is one to two hours.”
“Did we lose data?”
Rodriguez shook his head. “Impossible. In the unlikely event that we did, it would be recoverable.”