Hardware Guy

A short story

Standing at the edge of the landing field, Tongh watched two passengers leap from the hydrogen-cell copter, their heads covered in supplication to its gale-like wind. He recognized the lanky hop of his young employee Elsa, who escorted a slightly stooping older man. As the passengers approached, Tongh alternated glances between their stumbling forms and the rectangular concrete hulk of a data center that stood behind him in the morning fog. Its eight stories, blocking out the hills and forest behind them, remained dark except for a wan green light over the steel door.

The moment the passengers’ coats came down from their faces, he fumed. When they came within hearing he hissed at Elsa, “What did you do with him? He’s supposed to be blindfolded.”

“But he refused, Tongh,” said Elsa tremulously. “You said it was extremely urgent to get him here, so I thought I should bring him anyway.”

“You thought! No one except employees and international police are supposed to know the location of data centers. It’s the highest breach of discipline to—”

“Could you chill?” grumbled the older man, still uncreaking his limbs from the copter ride. His wide face, dissolving into straggly gray hair, was smeared by a thick white moustache. “If this contract is one big excuse for venting, I’ll head out now.”

Tongh held back further words, struggling to understand the visitor’s decades-old slang. The engineer continued, “The ride was half the briefing. I saw the hollow right by here that gets filled with swamp water, the electrical wires that come within twenty meters of each other…” Tongh listened in pain, for he was well acquainted with the vulnerabilities of the facility he had proudly taken charge of fifteen years before, but couldn’t help feeling defensive whenever they were recited in his presence.

But then an electronic screech broke out from the data center, as segments on the third and fourth floors started to glow a sickly red. “The memory failures are picking up!” yelled Tongh. “We need to get in and start the briefing right away.”

Soon the three of them occupied a small cubical room painted a relentless white, along with the center’s chief architect, Esteban. A mousy man in his thirties dressed in a drab, polyester button-down shirt, Esteban kept his eyes focused on a 3D hologram of the facilities that was projected into one corner and waxed redder by the minute. They all pretended to ignore the oppressiveness of the setting as well as the uncomfortable necessity of meeting and trusting new people in an emergency.

“Esteban, can you explain to Griffith why we called him in?” Tongh started.

At first Esteban said nothing, but gestured toward the hologram, which began to utter, “Two thousand forty six crystal failures thirteenth April, sixteen percent increase, temperature six degrees, two thousand four hundred twenty-four crystal failures sixteenth April, eighteen point five percent increase, tempera—” Esteban shut it off and sighed.

“There was a sudden rise in memory failures two days ago,” he said. “The memories are the next-to-last generation of crystalline G02 cards; not the hottest new technology, but well-tested and reliable. They totally replaced our Craco Zett disks, which we had since 2039.” With a few gestures on a handboard, he threw some graphs and schematics up on a wall.

“The timing fits,” said Griffith. “The Personal Embedded Sensor project finished in 2036, and personal computing devices were confiscated in 2038. So all the data centers handled the spike in storage demand by installing the Zetts. But yo, why the move to Flash back in September or October?”

“The new peer-to-peer directive from the World Data Consortium. It was supposed to shift processing to the edges of the net and reduce storage needs.”

“Yeah, everybody heard about that,” Griffith cut in. “Really didn’t shift processing to the edges. No edges in peer-to-peer. But you can always count on the World Data Consortium to think like the data center hacks they are.”

No one dared respond to the slight. He went on, “So when was the last time you had to ring up a hardware guy?”

“Only once since we switched in 2025 to fully robotic failure response,” answered Tongh. “After that, just had someone in to help along the switch from disk to crystal. Nobody here understands hardware anymore. Outside of the manufacturers, nobody in the world really understands it. Except people who had to deal with hardware on a daily basis thirty, forty years ago.”

“That would be me,” said Griffith.

“We’ve lost twenty-three thousand systems just in the twelve hours since we first contacted you,” Esteban said with a gritty edge to his voice.

“Twenty-two thousand eight hundred and eighty-seven,” intoned the hologram.

“Well hey,” announced Griffith, “Let’s get on it. For a start I’m going to go through your systems and overclock a bunch to make up for the ones that failed.”

“What does that do?”

“Make the chips run faster. Also make them fail faster. But I’m cool with that for a little while till we come up with a long-term plan. Won’t affect the G02s, where the problem seems to be. Grab me a console and I’ll get started.”

Tongh had something else nagging him. “We were afraid that the Parsers had infiltrated the data center.”

“Never know, man, the Parsers have the smartest guys in the field,” said Griffith.

Elsa couldn’t restrain herself from asking, “Were you ever one of the Parsers?”

“Naw, I could care less about the split between the Parsers and the mainstream data crunching folks,” answered Griffith cavalierly. “You guys want to run statistics across aggregate data all day and declare emerging behavioral trends, while the Parsers want to sort and order fields and groove on the relations between them. Yeah, you two sides come to blows all the time, but to me you’re all just substituting data for human thinking. I’d rather put data at the service of humans. But that’s just me.”

In a few minutes Esteban found and started up an old-fashioned monitor, and the three data center staff stood around awkwardly till Griffith waved them out of the room with his hand, refusing to take his eyes off his handboard.

“I bet he was with the Parsers,” whispered Elsa after they left, overcome with awe and a bit of pride.

“Well, he’d better be on our side now,” said Tongh, “or this data center will going down all on its own. And half the Midwest will come to a halt.”

Half an hour had passed when an intercom crackled to life in the control room. “Would one of you like to let me know when you replaced the MEDI-24 chips with MEDI-36 chips in room 243?” yelled Griffith across the connection.

“August 2028,” answered Tongh. “You needed to know that?”

“Yes, and it would’ve been nice to hear it up front instead of figuring it out from analyzing five years of cache behavior in logs,” answered Griffith in his belligerent tone. “And if any douchebag down there has any other secrets they’d like to divulge in the interest of saving this data center, feel free to make me your partner.”

No one could come up with other ideas of information to offer, so they fell silent.

Griffith met them back in the windowless concrete room as the night came on, carrying his handboard and looking tired. “I think those G02 cards aren’t up to the load you’re getting in the peer-to-peer network,” he reported. “I was never too happy with getting rid of disks, but the wheel of progress had to roll on no matter what anybody said. I’ve discovered that your cards are handling thirty-five times as many writes as the World Data Consortium planned for—and on some blocks up to eighty-eight times as many writes. That’s where the cards die off.”

“How could the Consortium be so wrong!” exclaimed Tongh.

“Well,” said Griffith, taking a big breath, “When they kicked their control habit and agreed to pass out handboards, they figured they could save a lot of capacity by distributing data and processing to the edge, as they called it. What they missed is that they’d start a whole new cycle of applications once people could collaborate any way they wanted. And while the users do most of their processing on their handboards, they need support from central storage as well.

“Here’s where it gets complicated, and stick around because it’s also where the Consortium underprovisioned. Convivial applications tend to hit information nodes over and over, and hit the popular ones exponentially more often. Underground Parser activity, which everybody knows is going on despite the ban, makes a bad story even worse, because it creates lots of hierarchical structures along with reads that traverse them recursively from the roots.

“Basically, more is happening on the peer-to-peer network than ever happened on the hub-and-spoke one, and the traffic growth can give the hub pain too.”

“Can we recover from it?”

“Totally. Replace the cards with larger ones that do more frequent block copies so they can handle more writes before failing.”

“We’ll get the information to the central administrators right away,” said Tongh. He forced himself to slap Griffith’s hand. Both Tongh and Esteban were clearly glad to see Griffith off, thankful though they might be for the diagnosis. He spent a few minutes recalibrating the CPUs he had overclocked. Only Elsa accompanied him back to the copter landing site.

For a few moments they stared off into the sky, as if that would make the copter appear faster. Finally Elsa ventured, “You didn’t seem too happy with how the data centers are run.”

“Oh, I just don’t like people pretending to understand complex systems they can’t understand,” answered Griffith in a noticeably more jovial and tolerant tone than he had shown all day. “The centers do their job all right.”

“What does it take to be a hardware guy?” Elsa asked with a seeming innocence. But the question prompted a bit of a smile on Griffith’s face, which turned almost imperceptibly in her direction.

“You thinking of putting in for that gig?” he asked.

“I wouldn’t know where to start…I’ve never touched a computer.”

Griffith turned to face her full on, causing her to bend her tall, awkward frame self-consciously. She had a slightly quizzical but bright aspect. “Can you keep a secret?” he asked.

Elsa, breathlessly, nodded. He took out his handboard and tossed it to her.

“All my notes and formulas for the past fifteen years are there,” he said.

“You’re going to need them!” she exclaimed.

“Nah, I’m fazing out on this business. Those copter rides crink my knees. And I’m tired of being jerked around by staff who know less than I do.”

Elsa gazed at the handboard, in wordless reverence. Griffith went on. “Try turning off one of those robots sometime and checking what the racks are doing. You’ll learn as you go along.”

She didn’t accompany him when the copter arrived, but saw him wave and smile at her as it lifted into the air.

Other fiction by Andy Oram

Creative Commons License
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.