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By Brian Richman, EIS Technical Services Team
The fateful day arrived. Technicians and programmers all over the country were up all night and for some, at least, it was a very stressful time. For some people, databases failed, applications crashed and transactions were rejected. Much sleep was lost and ulcers grew to monster proportions.
For the UNT EIS system however, the “big event” appears to have been a bit of an anti-climax! Even the cnn.com web site had removed all mention of the DST change from the technology section of its web site by the middle of the day of the change over (Sunday 3/11/07) and most TV stations were more concerned about telling us all not to be late for work on Monday.
Of course, we can’t recover the hours of missed sleep and we can’t charge anyone for the weeks of work we all put into making it a non-event by patching and upgrading the server software (and in some cases even the firmware that runs the equipment itself), but the fact remains that we at least appear to have got passed it all with remarkably little impact.
Did you remember to ... ?
This is however, not the case everywhere and for all computer users. Did you remember to download the updates to your handheld PDA? Did you notice that the set top boxes installed by some cable and TV service providers were not exactly certain just what the time was for a while on Sunday?
From an initial scan of the media, it looks like most of the problems with the change over to DST are confined to people who failed to keep their PC’s updated with the latest software versions. Even here on campus, we still had a very small number of PC’s that despite being (mostly) up to date still had old versions of some software installed on them that needed to be removed before everything functioned properly.
Dealing with complex systems
This raises the prospect of dealing with complex systems management as the interrelated ‘web’ of software that is today’s personal computing environment is nowhere as simple as it was, even as recently as five years ago. Today we see ever more software that relies on other software simply to load, let alone run properly! It’s not just restricted to the operating system that runs your PC either. Simple programs can download java modules from the world wide web, that are used to run yet other programs that make use of applications that store data in databases on yet more servers out there on the web and so it goes on.
Even as recently as five years ago, UNT relied on a centralized, mainframe computer to handle its core business data processing requirements. The I.T. scene today could not be more different and our EIS set up reflects that change very well indeed. The UNT EIS system is a very distributed network of computers. EIS is your PC (or Mac or Linux workstation or whatever you use to view it), it is the web front end processor, it is the application server, it is the database server, and although I am talking in the singular, there are duplicates and clusters of more than one particular machine for each of these features of the system.
We must also not overlook the network. If you are on campus, the network will be provided by UNT, but that is not always the case. In fact we at UNT are renowned for having one of the largest “non-traditional” student bodies (i.e. commuters and off-campus students) in the State of Texas.
So why is an understanding of this modern complex interaction important when it comes to something as apparently simple as Daylight Saving Time?
The answer is that even if we get the EIS servers working 100% correctly, the UNT network 100% working correctly, and you have updated your PC everything 100% correctly, all this hard work can fall down if in the end, there is one small and potentially minor overlooked element that is not updated or left out of some maintenance schedule or other especially if that component is outside of the UNT campus environment.
What this tells us is that no matter how carefully we look, we can nearly always find an interaction in the software that we didn’t expect and that in this more complex multi-user, multi-server, multi-supplier world, the need for best practice in what we do is even more important than ever before.
Another challenge on the horizon
EIS and UNT are OK with the spring change into
DST, but in early November, another challenge waits for us when the
current time will fall back one hour. We will have to ensure our
servers are able to handle that event too. Does anyone want to join me
for a “Back to CST” party? You can all help me watch as we worry over
duplicate invoice postings (“it went through twice, once when we went
through that time the first time and then again after we went back an
hour”) at least then, I won’t feel quite so alone at 2 a.m. one Sunday
morning, watching the clocks change on the University's business