Ten Years of IT At SATV

The end of May marked a milestone quietly passed:  I have been managing the IT at Salem Access Television since the spring of 2000.

I had been at SATV as a member since 1994, and served on its board as one of the three member representatives from 1999 through 2002.   I had learned, on my own and with the help of SATV, video production, editing, and my personal favorite skill, broadcast graphics design.

But I was never involved with our Macs (we were a Mac shop when we opened), nor our Amigas (which we used for TV production and graphics).  I had to be involved with the Amigas out of necessity since our graphics machine was very very flaky.  I had learned AmigaOS, Broadcast Titler, SCALA (which was, and is still, a superb digital presentation/signage program) and the Video Toaster, the legendary video production machine, but this out of necessity.

The executive director at the time was not so much interested in my help, or even aware of it, being very nontechnical and more of a social networker than anything.  I never bothered to be involved.  The only reason I paid attention to computers at all was to deal with the cranky Amigas;  despite the mystique around these nice machines, they were still computers all the same and I applied my computer skills no differently to them than to IBM’s or DEC’s.  There wasn’t anyone else in the building who could help when the Amiga CG went down before a show so…

In 1998 SATV moved to a Windows network and Small Business Server 4.0 (Back Office Server 4.0, Small Business Edition, was the name for it.)  I didn’t know it at the time, but the consultant’s expertise or lack of would make me more involved with our network whether I knew it or not.

When I served on the board in 1999, we were dealing with the financial repercussions of the new network—our director wasn’t really happy with the process nor the consultant and there were some disputed bills.

The staff wasn’t happy either:  Machines would crash and the network would often stall.

We hired a new executive director after our first director, the nontechnical one, felt burned out and wanted to do something else.   After this happened, I spent a little more time on staff machines, essentially diagnosing slowdowns from crapware that people would install and finding out just how flaky the client machines were.  Many of them had fans that failed quickly (a staffer told me once, “the machine sounds like it’s in pain!”) and networking problems that were all too often solved by, removing the NIC and the drivers and reinstalling.

These clients were all Windows 95 machines.  The consultant didn’t want Windows 98, “it was unproven”.  (Given our good experience with Win98 machines later on, I was livid remembering this  but that is off the point…)

We had used a third party NAT program to access our (then dialup) internet connection and it was flaky.  The network continued being intermittent—it was a 10 M shared Ethernet hub.  (Long-time Ethernet experts may know where this is going but hold those thoughts for the moment.)

Sometime in May 2000, I don’t know the exact date, our executive director, Jen Casco, had had enough.  I was babysitting a graphics project, or fixing the CG machine, can’t recall which, when she asked me that afternoon if I would look at the server.  “If you’re comfortable doing that.  It’s driving us crazy.”

Me:  “OK, give me the password…”

It took me two years to get all the problems out and get us a good system.

The network problem, I much later found out, was due to the same junky NICs in the clients;  if you are that Ethernet expert, you probably guessed our problem was due to a duplex mismatch, which can and does affect everything on a hub.

The server had never been backed up.  It was built with a Travan backup drive, an abomination in itself.  It had never seen a service pack.  It had never seen any routine checkups.  So much of my time over that first year was spent learning about our particular network and configuration.

Over that year, these matters were slowly resolved.  NT 4.0 Service Pack 6a was applied and when the upgrade to SBS 4.5 was published, I applied that.  I borrowed tools and parts from home to fix things.  I lent out, for a time, a 10/100 Ethernet switch that I had used to connect computers in my home network.  I even managed to fix the noisy fans by finding surplus CPU cooling units that would fit the (then-slotted) Pentium II processors in the workstations.

Eventually, I had to replace that Frankenstein server our consultant had built, in one final insult.  Over the year that I managed it, it would bluescreen continually.  That’s probably where my interest in Windows internals came from.  It was not a magic fix that I could do, but rather a bad motherboard.

A cheap workstation motherboard. 

Not a server board.

I would be lying if I said I never used a client board as a server, because I have.  But for a paying customer?  This consultant had the brass to suggest he had built and sold us a “Mercedes Network”!

Facepalm.

It was nothing like that.  There’s really no such thing as “Mercedes networks”, I told the board, only larger and smaller, simpler and more complex depending on the needs of the facility.

The network that guy left us wasn’t even that good—just five runs into the Engineering room, where my network core sits now.

(Years later, I would rip out that old network literally with my bare hands, and watch coils of cheap cable fall out of the ceiling, not even secured…)

The end of my year’s work (really year and a half) came when Jen listened to my request to refurbish the server with a new motherboard, and instead authorized the purchase of a new Dell server, the first of three Dell machines we’ve owned.

That is when I knew I had been a success.  (I also knew I loved this sort of work more than I do board work—no disrespect intended!)

Next:  Ups and downs, mistakes and revelations at SATV.

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