Friday, February 24, 2012

It's a system!

Patrick Norton (of TechTV and Tekzilla fame) and I happen to share the dual afflictions of being both geek and gearhead and I've got the proof in my garage.  While many tech types I know wouldn't know a driveshaft from a driveway I've found the dual passion to be advantageous.
Over the holidays I celebrated an anniversary and it has nothing to do with matrimony or employment  although at times I've felt elements of both of those commitments.

I've owned a 1974 Chevrolet El Camino since December of 1991.  In that time, there's not a system on it that I haven't had to troubleshoot at one point or another.  You can't own a vehicle that long without spending at least  some time figuring out how things work.  Somewhere along the way I came to the realization that the deductive processes I've used to keep it running are really no different than working on an IT problem.  Both involve systems and it's generally the failure of one or more of those systems that causes you an issue.

When you consider that everything that is in any way animated relies on a system or sequence of events to function it isn't a stretch to see a correlation between technology and automotives.  Of course modern vehicles rely on electronics and purpose built computers for economy, reliability and performance but that's not quite the avenue I'm going down.

No I'm after something a bit more basic.  Let me give you a simplified example.

Let's say some sunny morning you go out to your garage, get in your car to go to work, turn the key and nothing happens, we also notice our dashboard gauges and radio aren't working either.  Aside from knowing you're going to be late for work it's obvious that something's gone very wrong.  Most people faced with this kind of event are going to call the auto club at this point but I'm not most people.

If I've got to call someone else to deal with my automotive problems I take it as a personal failure.  So for the sake of my example assume you're weird like me and try to fix it yourself.

Now, we know the car won't start.  So we know there's something going on with the starting system which means we need to figure out what it takes to turn the engine over in the first place.  Starting a car involves a basic set of components all of which must work together to get us to our goal which in this case is a running engine. 

The basics of starting system involve a battery, wires, a starting motor and your ignition.  In my example I said that we turned the key and nothing happened.  Knowing that nothing happens without voltage and amperage from the battery the first test I'd do is to see if our battery was putting out any voltage.  The quickest way to do that is to turn on the headlight switch and see if they come on.  If they don't or they're very dim then you've found the immediate problem, a dead battery or loose battery cable. 

We've narrowed down the problem by knowing how the system works and the function of each constituent part of it.  In my example we know that electricity is vital for the car to start and operate all the accessories like your radio and the ignition system(different from the starting system btw). 

The battery is a vital part of that system and if it's removed the system fails even though the other parts of it still operate correctly.

I know my example may be a bit oversimplified but it's only to illustrate a point.  That being that a dead battery in my example is the failing component causing the system to break down.

It's no different with computers and networking.  It's a system.  Let's give you another example.

Say I finally make it to work, apologize to my boss and go sit down in front of my computer.  I turn it on and I'm greeted with my login page.  I'm able to log in (yes IT guys, assume a cached login) and I see my desktop.  The problem is I can't get to any of my files that live on the network server I use every day.

Now I know it worked when I left work the day before so why doesn't it work now?

Apparently I'm having a really bad day, first the car now the computer...

Again being an IT guy calling in someone else to fix my problem is a point of personal failure. 

So we know I can't connect to my files on the network.  The first question I ask is can I connect to anything else.  So I open up my Internet browser and wait a moment.  All I get is a blank page that says something like "404 page not found".  Hmm, ok, looks like I may not be on the network. 

There's lots of technical troubleshooting that I'd do in this case but for the sake of simplicity let's say my next step in troubleshooting involves looking at the back of my computer to see if my network cable is connected.  Ha! It isn't.  Apparently my joker friends in IT decided I was going to have an even worse day than I was already having and pulled the cable out. 

I guess I should have known from the snickering when I came in the office.

I reconnect the cable and voila! I can get to my file and the Internet.

The troubleshooting process here was the same as the car. I knew there were constituent parts of a system that have to function if it's going to work correctly. In this case the disconnected wire prevented my computer from talking on the network.

It's not uncommon for me to fall back on my car analogies to solve IT problems and vice versa.  It helps me break down complex problems into their constituent parts.  That or I'm just weird....