back to article Competitive techies almost bring distributed disaster upon themselves – and they didn't even find any aliens

Monday is upon us and International Bacon Day is but a fleeting memory. Join us, pork lovers and swervers alike, in welcoming the week with another entry in The Register's Who, Me? feature. Our story comes from a reader Regomised as "Felix" and takes us back to the early part of this century, when Nokia's 3310 was quite the …

  1. Horridbloke

    Pringles can?

    Pah! We used a metal toilet brush holder. It worked really well.

    (Don't worry, we bought it new).

    1. Anonymous Custard

      Re: Pringles can?

      Yes, but the Pringles can has the added benefit of the Pringles.

      I know it's a tough job, but someone has to empty it so it can be used...

      Nom nom nom...

      1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

        Re: Pringles can?

        A metal sieve (Handle twisted & forced into a makeshift base\stand), hole punched into the centre, a USB WiFi Stick, placed into the hole & connected to my laptop & aimed at houses 100 - 200M away that hadn't locked down their WiFi, as the ISP hadn't set up my new internet connection in a rented house.

        1. Horridbloke

          Re: Pringles can?

          Nice.. is that using the sieve as a parabolic reflector? I've heard good things about woks used in such a manner.

  2. Sparkus

    Once had a junior BOFH mess up his off-hours crontabs and flooded /var/tmp and /tmp with SETI log and results files.

    Given that these servers were running the companies global DB2/SAP instance, it got immediate attention.........

  3. GlenP Silver badge

    I Suppose...

    Running SETI out of hours isn't as bad as the overnight operator at one former employer who was running an entire computing bureau (back in the days when companies without their own systems would submit jobs for processing).

    1. big_D Silver badge

      Re: I Suppose...

      We had a bored night-shift op who loved MUD. He was playing over the modem and using PSS(?).

      One night he came up with the "brilliant" idea of running a team through the dungeon. So he had a 4 character team running, each with a dedicated modem and using the PSS account to the Essex uni's machine...

      And that for nearly all of his 12 hour shift!

      The resulting phone bill and PSS invoice was "substantial", to say the least. Luckily his best mate was responsible for the modem pool and the PSS. He got an earfull from his mate, who then managed to distribute the high invoice evenly over the valid projects, so they were all a little larger that month.

      Lesson learned, he didn't run a big MUD raid again, at least not as long as the company was using a modem pool for access.

      1. GlenP Silver badge

        Re: I Suppose...

        using PSS

        I suspect he was using PSS* to connect to JANET and then on to Essex Uni.

        I did similar in the distant past before email became common (although it was on Prestel). Dial in to the VAX at work over a modem link, PSS to Janet, connect to the Northumbrian Universities network then log in to the MicroVAX sitting in the corner of a friend's lab so I could send him an email. Carrier pigeon may have been more efficient! :)

        *Packet Switch Stream, we used it for connecting to various interesting places such as Harwell where we had time on their Cray.

        1. big_D Silver badge

          Re: I Suppose...

          Yes, I think you are correct.

        2. Anonymous Coward
          Anonymous Coward

          Re: I Suppose...

          Dial in to the VAX at work over a modem link, PSS to Janet, connect to the Northumbrian Universities network then log in to the MicroVAX

          Ah, the happy days when most of the VAXen on JANET still had the default administrator accounts & passwords, and the worst that would happen when 'exploring' was a message from the operator saying "who are you and what do you want?".

        3. Mike 16


          Was the WITCH on line?

        4. slime

          Re: I Suppose...

          "carrier pigeon may have been more effective"

          RFC1149 reference! Still amusing even 30 years on


          1. Phil O'Sophical Silver badge

            Re: I Suppose...

            It's been updated since then, there's now RFC6214, with support for IP (Internet Pigeons?) v6:

            As noted in RFC 1149, the MTU is variable, and generally increases with increased carrier age. Since the minimum link MTU allowed by RFC 2460 is 1280 octets, this means that older carriers MUST be used for IPv6.

      2. irrelevant

        Re: I Suppose...

        Ah, Essex MUD.. Started off using the usually short lived accounts that got shared around bulletin boards, hen I got my own PSS account in order to play, but after the first bill came in, reverted to using work's... Since it was shared between the whole site, I don't think my usage was noticed..

        JANET was fun to explore too!


    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: I Suppose...


      In the seemingly distant past, a customer reported slow Internet access while their IT guy was on leave.

      Turns out he was using the companies Internet conenction and an old server to host a warez site as a side gig.

      He would have got away with it if it wasn't for some meddling kids^H^H^H a script that failed to delete a lock file which meant the business hours bandwidth restrictions for FTP never kicked in.

  4. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

    Ah, reverse SSH tunnels.

    Last "proper" job I had, they went to all sorts of lengths to lock the network down, filtering Facebook – even Gmail – and blocking USB sticks and the like (while idiotically still allowing Dropbox). They didn't seem to realise that if they still allowed outgoing SSH, all bets were off. It was part of my arriving-at-work routine to fire up the tunnel so I could actually check my email. A bit of tinkering meant I could even map my home network shares. Made life a lot easier when I wanted to take work home...

    1. druck Silver badge

      Re: Ah, reverse SSH tunnels.

      That's just a normal forward tunnel.

      At a previous job we had enjoyed a fast ssh connection in to the company in order to work from home, but after a while a pointy haired boss decided we should all use a new and incredibly slow VPN as it was "more secure". Suffice to after a week or so getting nothing done, word got around to have a careful read of the ssh man page.

      So then I set up my work machine to automatically ssh in to my Raspberry Pi at home, with a reverse tunnel set up. Then when I was at home I could ssh in to the Raspberry Pi from the company laptop and connect back to my desktop at work.

      1. Hubert Cumberdale Silver badge

        Re: Ah, reverse SSH tunnels.

        (I also used to leave it running sometimes when I went home so I could access shares on the office network from home – that was the reverse bit...)

  5. druck Silver badge

    RC5 cracking on the sly

    Before SETI there was the RC5 cracking challenge. I ran it on a few early Pentium III industrial PCsI had access to at work, but as there was only one PC with internet access in the office, I had to run the client and manually copy the data to and from the client for each machine. Later I managed managed to find a few more of the boxes which were going unused, and set them up at the back of a cupboard where hopefully no one would notice the noise from the fans and or wonder why it was a bit warm. Manually setting them up was a pain, so I created a shared drive and automatically ran the client on the internet PC out of work hours. The system worked very well for over a year, so well I forgot about it when I moved on, and it carried on submitting results for around 6 months after I left the company!

    1. Solviva

      Re: RC5 cracking on the sly


      I returned back at school after the summer break one year to find they'd replaced the mix of 386 and 486 PCs with shiny new Celeron 300s (them being the ones that quite happily ran at 450 MHz if asked). Essentially being P3s with their cache neutered, although I think the 300a socket 370s were graced with > 0 l2 Cache, they handled rather well.

      So I went around them with a floppy, installed, tweaked the bios to run at 450 and had about 30 PCs doing my dirty work. Just had to drop by every machine every few days with a disk to give them new work and grab the complete work...

  6. Remy Redert

    Not mine thankfully, but a friend of mine had a (legitimate) folding@home setup running on their test rigs overnight, when no overnight tests were scheduled.

    This setup happily ran for a few years without issues and with approval from management. Then they decided to go cloudy for these test rigs and despite warnings from the test teams not to, IT copied the existing setups straight onto cloudy machines. And then set the limits for cloudy instances up appropriately generously so that the multi threaded memory heavy tests would run well.

    And then they got hit by a stupidly high bill in the first month because of course the folding@home jobs had gotten copied across and were configured to use every bit of CPU and memory they could. This cost rather a lot more in the cloud than it had previously in power bills.

  7. Billa Bong

    kill -1 -1 solves all...

    As a student I did some naughty things. I'd occasionally remote into lab machines I knew probably wouldn't be used until the next tutorial and set them working on problems (I don't recall if it was SETI, but this outfit gave rewards). One day a tutorial was in there unexpectedly (probably rescheduled). Fortunately I happened to walk past the lab maybe 5 minutes into the class with a lot of confused people wondering why everything was running so slow.

    I got to another computer room at a run, ssh'd to each machine and issued a kill -1 -1. Had it been any longer, the dispatched tech would have found me out very quickly... fortunately he was of the "oh, it seems to have solved itself - glad I could help" type; no root cause was done.

  8. Daedalus

    Vive la difference

    Fans of "distributed computing" can sign their company networks up for "Einstein@Home", the gravitational wave equivalent of SETI. You too can find merging black holes!

    What's the difference? We don't know if there are aliens, but we know that there are black holes (possibly not in Blackburn Lancashire or the Albert Hall).

    1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge

      Re: Vive la difference

      Are you sure?

  9. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge

    Other BOINC projects

    With SETI@Home no more, I've turned to other projects using the BOINC engine, which I've found more reliable than Folding@Home. Of course, if one still wants to look for mysterious lifeforms here on Earth, I gather there's a new project starting which uses distributed AI to investigate publicly available pictures for strange humanoid creatures otherwise unknown to science.

    You know, Yeti@home.

    1. J. Cook Silver badge

      Re: Other BOINC projects

      ... You get an upvote for that terrible pun.

      1. The commentard formerly known as Mister_C

        Re: Other BOINC projects

        I came here to mention that

        "a suspiciously large number of PCs in the office were crawling along, running hot and showing 100 per cent CPU usage"

        sounded more like the yeti at home project

        A parody so well constructed that the seti page had a link to it.

        1. Throatwarbler Mangrove Silver badge
          Paris Hilton

          Re: Other BOINC projects

          I guess I shouldn't be surprised that someone beat me to it ...

          1. Mike Lewis

            Re: Other BOINC projects

            BOINC and Folding@home make a good combination. BOINC uses a lot of memory while Folding uses a lot of CPU. I've had both running on my antique Intel i5-2400 for several months. It keeps my home office warm in winter.

            The only problem is when I add subtitles to the enormous number of videos my deaf and disabled mum watches as she can't do much else. I have to set the priorities of the Folding client and video converter to low then the BOINC client to high to keep it going at a reasonable rate.

    2. Soruk

      Re: Other BOINC projects

      I'm still on the STI project - the Search for Terrestrial Intelligence. Not found anything yet.

      1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

        Re: Other BOINC projects

        I see looking in the mirror also failed to show it.

        1. Soruk

          Re: Other BOINC projects

          My mirror is failing to sync.

  10. Keith Oborn

    Major Telcos and SETI

    Company I worked for in 2000-2003 sold, amongst other things, CDN systems. Got a big order from a Dutch telco whose name began with K. They bought 100 fully-loaded Sun E450s.

    But their management couldn't agree on the details of what they wanted to do. We had two consultants cooling their heels on site for 6 months at the customer's expense.

    One day they emailed the office: "We got bored. Uncrated all the Suns, hooked them up and got them online. We're in the top 1% of SETI@home" :-)

    1. A.P. Veening Silver badge

      Re: Major Telcos and SETI

      a Dutch telco whose name began with K

      Only one of those around, the English translation of the name starts with "R".

  11. RobThBay

    I was doing the same thing with about 50 PC's until an enthusiastic employee wondered why the computers were left on all night. I told her she could turn the screens off but leave the computers on in case we needed to update them overnight. That worked for a while until noticed the seti logo in the tool tray on most of the computers.

  12. swm

    In 1965 I had a problem and access to a real time DN-30 computer that was running the exec for the Dartmouth time sharing system. So I added some tasks to calculate some results on the DN-30. I was using a good fraction of the computer time and the blinkenlights showed an unusual pattern as a result. I got my answers and turned off the program and then realized I could get the same answers, by hand, with paper and pencil quite quickly.

    Since the computer was a real time computer there wasn't any appreciable slowdown.

  13. Lazlo Woodbine

    Free WiFI

    I remember back in the day I worked for certain low rent PC manufacturer who also owned a Tier One ISP.

    The network guys one evening noticed one server was unusually busy, and had an unexpected port open to the world, so they went to investigate, found a network cable where there shouldn't have been one, traced the cable up through the roof space and out through a vent onto the roof, where they found an AP beaming free WiFi to the estate over the road...

  14. Arbuthnot the Magnificent


    In about 2005 I was network admin for a big print manufacturer and I had the SETI client running on all our servers and desktops. One of the Beancounters asked about power consumption of the PCs being on overnight (even though the factory consumed so much electricity that we literally had our own substation onsite) but I appeased him by using group policy to set the monitors to power off - he didn't know the difference between the PC being off or just the monitor.

  15. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I was another that had seti@home running on every machine I could get at in the office. Being a provider of accounts systems to small businesses, we usually had a few servers kicking about waiting to go to clients on top of our own machines... I think i remembered to delete it on servers going out the door. Mostly.

    It never got noticed, and I was still charting several months after I left that company though..

    I did get spoken to about leaving the office fileserver downloading alt.binaries.svcd overnight, every night...

  16. MV36_R

    Always lock your desk at night

    Ah, the memories of working nights in tech support... less techie activities included testing home-made spud canons and boiling vinegar in the "private" kettle of the unpopular manager... Of course I never did either of those things. And I _think_ it was vinegar....?

  17. Robert Carnegie Silver badge

    So far no one's admitted to Bitcoin. But of course that's practical for paying your ransomware fee.

    Speaking of which, it's a shame that the SETI people didn't get to buy Richard Branson's private island after all :-) So lovely for the aliens to visit there... which they've been doing since 1996...

    In what I'll call my day the craze was "fractal" images, but not secret, they were to look at! Then there was the magic eye stereogram fad, but I never saw anything in that.

  18. StargateSg7

    An old mainframe client/server network mis-use story here .... NOT ME THOUGH !!!!

    An admin much older than me at the time during an overnight shift told of his relative's tech admin exploits with a whole 1990's era company wide network of Sun Workstations (i.e. at about $10,000 US per computer at the time, it was vaaaast overkill for the data entry/customer service tasks they were bought for!)

    Major B2B industrial systems sales and rentals company outside of North America with 7500 customer Sun-based service and data entry workstations running at a full 900 MHz at the time (i.e. pretty damn fast!) Cue a custom stock-trading time-stamp tracker software made by this huckster admin who installed it on EVERY onsite machine on the multi-warehouse/multi-building campus.

    This software allowed said huckster admin to use an installed-by-him and unknown-to-the-the-company incoming separate-from-the-main-network data line which had a real-time Commodities and Options Board feed so that he could hide his custom built client software within a four times daily incremental backup task. This software allow him to TIME options/futures trading code that narrowed down to a specific time period during each day, X-numbers of options traded by other companies which he piggybacked onto with his own money as an unrelated order and then he used his fancy software to trade those bought options literally a few minutes later (i.e. as a fast trader bot!). This means he made a small 0.005% profit off of 1000's of other's trades that he piggy backed on.

    It was a LEGAL FORM of fast-trading/options-skimming where he bought the same options as others within mere seconds of those orders being entered. And in the afternoon, he almost always traded for a small profit. Even after all the trading fees, because he had 7500 client computers to work with and a secret but FAST network line and even though he made only profit of about ONE DOLLAR per trade, that 7500 trades per day at done over 250 trading days on the commodities exchanges, he was making almost 1.9 MILLION DOLLARS PER YEAR!

    He quit work after two years of doing all this trading on the down low and quiet (YES! He reported and paid his taxes on all that income!). Before he quit, the huckster admin yanked out all the client software from all machines and removed the secret network line and as far as he knows, no-one was the wiser and he used his new-found fortune to getting a traders licence and is basically a multi-millionaire because he now had the money to bet on bigger and more profitable option trades as his own trading firm NOT beholden to clients and bosses.

    So the moral of the story IS HAVE NO MORALS about using company gear and do everything quietly and on the down-low. Report all you income and pay all your taxes and no-one will be the wiser once you quit your day job and become your own boss!


    P.S. B2B company was eventually bought out by a big hedge fund and that 7500 workstation network was yanked out in favour of some big UNIX servers, mirrored RAID arrays and lots of thin clients at ONE-SIXTH the cost of the original Sun Workstation network system!


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