back to article Sysadmin admits trying to axe California power grid

A sysadmin last week pleaded guilty to attempting to disrupt the power grid in California by shutting down a data center that managed the state's electricity supply. Lonnie Charles Denison, 33, of South Natomas in California confessed to breaking a glass cover and pushing an emergency power off button at the Independent System …


This topic is closed for new posts.
  1. Steven Griffiths
    Thumb Up

    Some kind of honorary BOFH award needed here...

    ...don't you think?

  2. Andrew Bolton

    He's being sentenced on 29 Feb...

    ... does that mean if he gets a full five year sentence, the computers won't let him out until 2028?

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    Souds like something Simon would do, well the shutting down not pleading the guilty part.

  4. Phil the Geek


    I think it's Folsom, which is also home to a well known prison. Which is handy...

  5. marc

    It's Folsom, not Fulsom....

    Just to correct a typo, since that's my home town :-)

  6. Laurent_Z
    Gates Horns


    Nahh, he would have had the PHB push it just in front of the CCTV camera, all the while pretexting an IT calendar for the company 8)

  7. Tim Brown

    20 specialists?

    "20 computer specialists 7 hours to restore the system"???

    That's the really scary bit, all he did was push an off button! What happens if something REALLY goes wrong?

  8. DV Henkel-Wallace

    Posted in the canteen:

    New Policy:

    Effective immediately, sackings are to happen Sunday evenings ONLY.

  9. James

    anyone else think the "20 computer experts" thing is BS?

    I've always believed that businesses lie about their recovery costs just for the courts to go harder on the BOFHs. anyone else believe that?

  10. M. Poolman
    Paris Hilton


    OK, lets get this straight. A single false alarm costs $14k and 20 (thats what the man said, count 'em TWENTY) computer specialists seven hours to correct it , while the state of California faces imminent melt down.

    So thats 140 man ^H^H^H person hours to find the reset switch. And replace the broken glass. Someones taking the peace out of someone here, but I can't quite see who. Hence the gratuituous Paris emoticon.

  11. Herby

    Proper BOFH actions are:

    1) Get someone else to do it (Preferably some bean counter)

    2) Make money while it is done (energy futures?)

    3) Get someone else blamed for instigating it.

    4) Turn in your most hated person for doing it.

    5) Erase all evidence of involvement

    6) Have the contract to "restore" the system.

    7) Get paid for supplying the entire 20 person team

    8) Split the proceeds of the contract with PFY (70/30 at least) for only doing 10 minutes of work between yourselves.

    9) Have the whole thing handled while across the street in the pub quaffing a brew.

  12. Alan Donaly

    Merry christmas

    you're fired.

  13. Benedict
    Thumb Up


    ... for mental sysadmins. There should be some kind of "going postal" equivalent.

  14. Morely Dotes
    Thumb Down

    Re: Some kind of honorary BOFH award needed here...

    No, more like a Darwin Award, only he didn't get that right, either.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    @M. Poolman

    Obviously you haven't worked in a large IT center.

    Its never a simple as "finding the reset switch"

    You would need network admins, system admins, DBAs and application support to bring all of the systems back online. Once back online everything would have to undergo testing to ensure everything works as its supposed to. This all takes manpower and time and specialists.

    Of course, if its a large installation then they cant just switch the power back on, it would have to powered back on in stages so you'd also need a couple of power engineers for that alone.

    Seven hours for a large data center is a job well done.

  16. Paul Turvey

    Unix System?

    Ummm, 20 experts to reboot a Unix system?

    Allowing for a quick emergency shutdown, and the need to rebuild a few (RAID) discs, that would take one Sysop about 2 hours according to my thinking, allowing for the usual sized farm of servers.

  17. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    To everyone who is banging on about 20 people bing BS/Rubbish/Crap etc. In a large datacentres this is entirely realistic, if on the light side. You can't just turn on a datacentre after it has had the power yanked from under it, there will be reams of documentation about what has to come up in what order, systems will have to be checked out, filesystems will need to be checked, logs cecked. Incident/Recovery managers will need to confirm what the initial problem was and resolve issues related to the bringing up of systems. That's not to mention stuff like reseting the Air Con, the EPO system, etc. etc. You may be able to just hit the 'on' button on a Wintel/Lintel server after it's lost its power, but you really can't do this on a tape robot that lost power or other more exotic hardware like your Mainframes etc. As well as all of this, you will almost certainly loose a load of disks and other hardware which need to be replaced.

    At the company I work for, we had the following support areas, who were involved in a recent power outage (someone accidentally pressed the EPO when they were working on it - twunts)


    Storage Disk/SAN

    Storage Tape/Backup

    Messaging (Windows & appliances)

    General Server Apps (Windows)

    AD Systems

    Networks (LAN/WAN)


    I Server


    Recovery Management

    Facilities Management

    That's 14 departments, some of which will have several members working in the recovery and that's not to mention the business analysts required to make sure that everything works before you swing services back from the DR datacentre. That's a whole shitload of man hours and cost my company many thousands of pounds. We now have new electrical contractors.

  18. Anonymous Coward



    i was actually trying to plug in my ipod


  19. kain preacher

    routers and switches

    i've seen cisco routers and switches lose their IOS after having the power yanked out from them.

  20. Dick

    Maybe he had a few beers

    like the last CA system admin to go postal

  21. Alex Brett


    So, why do these datacentres have an EPO button - I can understand having emergency stops for the things with large moving parts (the aircon units), but why have a button that turns off all the power to the servers - the only two situations I can see you would have to legitimately use this are a) if someone is getting electrocuted or b) fire.

    Now, for a) if your power supplies are correctly set up with appropriate breakers then if someone gets electrocuted the power will trip out anyway, or if it doesn't surely a large wooden stick could just be used to push the person away.

    For b) if the fire alarm goes off, then most people aren't going to be on the datafloor anyway, they'll be in the NOC, hear the alarm and so could quite easily go to the power area and switch stuff off there.

    I'll admit that the fire argument does give some justification, and at least in this case there was a glass cover to prevent accidental activation (I've read stories of someone accidentally pressing one thinking it was the door release switch!) - but still if you look at the risks I'd personally have said they cause more problems than they solve...

  22. Glen

    @Alex Brett

    "So, why do these datacentres have an EPO button??"

    Correct, it is because of fire, can't have the fire wardens rushing in with the hose when the UPS is hot. Just because you have FM-200 doesn't mean the insurance companies will let you get away with not having a kill switch.

  23. Simon Holt

    Not going postal.....

    Going email surely

  24. steve
    Thumb Up

    Having worked in a NOC.......

    I can happily say that of those 20 guys, 3 will be managers running around like headless chickens trying to organise things that they know nothing about, 2 will be senior engineers sitting at their desks grumbling about how things were easier in their day while trying to find where they put all there DR info, 8 will be NOC techs scrambling about switching things on, fetching backup tapes and praying that everything comes up, 6 will be off site phoning in with helpful comments such as " i still can't see the server from here" and "have you tried power cycling the box?" and finally there will be a guy like me, NOC team leader sitting in a corner being ever so helpful with comments such as "i don't think you want to do that" and "are you sure you don't want to turn that box on first?" as well as "why haven't you gotten me a coffee yet?". Ah, those were the days........

  25. Stephen B Streater

    The real Truth

    So the really scary bit is that they admit to 140 man hours to switch the system back on. But we know they must be hiding the real Truth due to embarrassment - it took a lot more resources to fix.

  26. Mr Larrington
    Paris Hilton

    Wot Fraser said

    Many years ago I toiled in the service of a bank. One day a mad Irishman and a pile of tape boxes combined to switch off the entire data centre at around five pm on a weekday. It took half a dozen BOFHs, a shedload of support and development bods and a Field Circus bloke all night and half the next day to get things back to where they'd been before Dave had his attack of brain fade.

    The next day the Boss issued an edict that tape boxes were not to be stacked more than two high, and arranged for a mollyguard to be fitted to the Big Red Switch...

  27. Spleen

    EPO button

    I assumed it was there so James Bond could press it at the last second.

  28. Ed

    Chip in on his fine ?

    I think we should set up a paypal account and all chip in for his fine.....

    cmon I know pretty much all of you have wanted to do something like this before and will again...

    I will put in $20 AUD... mind you after conversion that about 20p lol

  29. Ian Dennison

    With his surname 1 letter away from mine,...

    guess I'll never get a sysadmin job in America

  30. Andrew Barr

    Where were the UPS Connected to

    Why was the little red button not connected to the unfiltered side of the ups, so that the UPS would nicely shut down the servers. This would then allow the server to be turned on in the set sequence to get the system back up and running as quickly as possible.

    But then again I have seen little red buttons more than electronically turn of the power, but actually cut through the power cable suppling the server room, but this was still on the unfiltered side of the ups.

  31. Senor Beavis
    Thumb Up

    @ all comments from BOFHs

    I'm loving the thought process:

    "Someone's being electrocuted, but it's a real bastard to power off the data centre. Hmmm. Let the f**ker fry. Oh, that will probably set off the smoke detectors... you - minion - poke the electric person with a wooden pole. Top show. You can use the electric Dymo labeller today."

  32. Steven Jones

    It's called an emergency power off

    "Why was the little red button not connected to the unfiltered side of the ups". Because it's actually called an emergency power off for good reasons - it's for very rare occasions when all power to all the servers and equipment has to be shut off immediately. It doesn't greatly matter that the mains voltage is providced from the UPS or not - the batteries will be designed to keep the centre running at full power for a couple of minutes before the auxilliaries kick in. It there's a fire or some chassis have gone live due to a wiring fault then there's plenty enough stored energy to cause a great deal of damage.

    This thing required the glass to be broken so it's hardly an accidental thing. It's really rather difficult to protect equipment from attack by an insider. The fact that this guy blew his top because his Unix privileges had been withdrawn is interesting. Maybe it had become obvious that he had a volatile temperament. If so, then maybe he shouldn't be anywhere near the insides of a data centre anyway. In our datacentres sys admins do not normally have access to the computer halls.

    In the final position, if the system is really so essential to keep the Californian power grid running on an hour-by-hour basis then you have to wonder why there isn't a backup centre. It doesn't require a disgruntled employee to kill a data centre - there are plenty of other ways of doing it.

  33. Aaron


    What did they expect allowing someone who's basically been fired in such a sensitive area (he may not have been actually fired but if they have revoked this computer rights then they should also have revoked his access rights).

    To the people who are saying 7 hours is a long time, its clear that they haven't had much experience with LARGE data centers. We arnt talking about a single server or two. We are talking about whole racks upon racks of servers. Each rack normally is home for 42 1u servers (sometimes the servers could be bigger but we dont know the specifics). Any large data center will have hundreds of these racks.

    We know nothing about what services/functions these servers were performing but to even power on this amount of kit, it would have to be done in stages. Once all the servers are powered on then the admins will need to bring the services online in the right order, test each interconnecting system and ensure its operating correctly and there has been no data loss or problems caused by the power cut. Fix any problems that may have been caused (restoring backup's/rebuilding raid arrays etc). All in all its a lot of work to get any large data center back up and running after a total power failure.

  34. Anonymous Coward

    I can remember something similar happening at a place I used to work...

    ...only it wasnt malicious, was merely stupidity.

    Apparrently an exec was showing some prospective customers round the computer room, and to demonstrate the effectiveness of the UPS system in place, he decided to flipped the mains power switch unannounced.

    Unfortunately, someone had bypassed the UPS for some scheduled maintenance. Cue the sudden spooling down of about 50 servers, the mainframe, the sounds of alarms through the room, ops people running about like headless chickens...Doh!

    We used to joke that the ops should have locked him in and let him demonstrate the halon system while he was at it. BOFH would have known what to do lol.

  35. Charlie

    @Proper BOFH actions are:

    For all we know, this WAS the work of a proper BOFH and Denison is merely his fall guy ;)

  36. Rob Saunders
    Gates Horns

    re: Proper BOFH actions are:

    From the look of it that is exactly what happened! I suspect he is simply a scapegoat

  37. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Up

    @Senor Beavis

    I read that and found myself nodding in agreement and thinking, "Yes, that makes sense, just reward too".

  38. Seth

    re: Proper BOFH actions are:

    Bound to be a proper bofh after a bit of OT or dispencing with a contractor who new to much. My Moneys on the bloke with the "New Kid"

  39. Gordon

    I wonder

    You'd think he'd realise that the time of least demand isn't the moment to strike, wouldn't you? I'd be interested to find out

    1/ Why his admin privs had been pulled, but not his building access? Why was someone who needed to have this prives revoked allowed into such a sensitive area? Why didn't they remove him to the canteen, and then tell him when he's out of harms way?

    2/ What did he think he's achieve with a false bomb threat, other than making himself look an even bigger tit and making his future prospects even LESS rosey?

  40. Ed
    IT Angle

    How to fire a sysadmin

    At my place of work, we fire our sysadmins properly. That is, we get them off-site; preferably for an hour or so (lunch tends to work for us.) When the person exits the rotating door on the way out (i.e. finishes entering the big blue room), the person at the back of the line to go out remembers something, runs back to his desk, and sends a ping to the person doing the main deed.

    Access is terminated by the time said individual gets to whatever transport is being used for lunch. This includes both computer access and physical access authority.

    When they return from lunch (or whatever outing they were on), there is one or more boxes, containing all of their worldly possessions they had left on-site.

    This way, they have no access to any systems, inside or outside the computer room.

    (Note: back when we had the blackberry ssh program in testing, the software supporting that service would flake out every so often. Mysteriously, about 5% of the time it did this, someone was fired. Oddly enough, this equated to 100% of the time we were firing someone with sufficient access to be able to do anything with it - not that they could manage anything, with their access revoked, but we didn't want lunch disturbed by them realizing they were fired.)

  41. Anonymous Coward

    Water and electrickery do NOT mix well

    I worked in a medium-sized data centre (four big mainframes, four VAXclusters, numerous Windoze servers and a few PDP-11s(!!)) on the ground floor of a three-storey building with a flat roof.

    Most of the roof drains got blocked by leaves (that was the official excuse - no trees nearby!) and all the rainwater tried running down one 6"-diameter pipe... the pressure forced an inspection cover partway open and it was only cos I noticed the sound of running water in the data centre (funnily enough, not a normal feature!) that we discovered the floor void filling with the water from the roof.

    At the deepest point, the water was about two inches or so below the trunking carrying the 3-phase power cable. For those who don't know, UK 3-phase runs at 415V and lots of amps...

    Our EPO cutoff switch killed all power instantly, as it was supposed to.

    The same cannot be said for a certain datacentre in Scotland where the EPO was tripped when *they* flooded, but the UPSs kept some of the server and disk cabinets and comms racks in the machine room live for almost twenty minutes... kudos for the person who specced the capacity needed, but just as well the hardware guys told the Data Centre Manager to take a running jump when he told them to go in and start fixing things before the kit ran out of juice...

This topic is closed for new posts.

Other stories you might like