The Right Tool for the Right Job ~ a true story by Matt Conlon

Matt ConlonEvery one knows that hammers are used to pound nails. Screwdrivers drive screws. Ladders help you climb. Yet of course, we’ve all seen people banging nails with wrenches or stones, turning screws with butter knives, and standing on chairs.

The reasons people use the wrong tool can vary; Perhaps they didn’t have the right tool on hand. Maybe they feel like they can do a better job with the wrong tool. Maybe they just like the challenge, or want to prove conventional wisdom wrong.

Regardless of the reason, the fact remains that the correct tool is out there, and it exists for a reason. It’s been designed, tested, redesigned and has evolved to perform its function as efficiently as possible. That being said, many basic tools come in different shapes and functions. Claw hammer vs. ballpeen. Philips screwdriver vs. flathead. Step ladder vs. extension. The list goes on.

This is as true a philosophy for hand tools as it is for information technology.

Everyone knows that you can buy a laptop off the shelves at Best Buy for a few hundred dollars. So why then would you instead spend four times that much for something from Dell? You can purchase a wireless router that’ll get you connected to the internet anywhere in your office space for $80, and it says right on it that it’s also a firewall, so why would you spend $800 on a SonicWALL?

These are questions we hear frequently, and the answers vary in complexity from one piece of equipment to another, but the basic answer is always the same. The right tool for the right job, and you get what you pay for.

In the case of the examples I put up above, that laptop you have from Best Buy will get you online, and it may even say that it’s parts are rated for the same level of performance as the more expensive Dell. But there’s no way to come so far down in price without cutting some corners. It’s sure to run hotter, it’s contacts are likely aluminum rather than the more ideal gold, it’s plastic is thinner and flexes more, and so on. That wireless router is going to be good for some things, and maybe it has a firewall, but it’s certainly not going to protect you as well as the SonicWALL. It’s not going to come with VPN capabilities, anti-virus protection against threats coming in before they hit the network, port forwarding capabilities, and so on.

I was 23 years old when I landed my first job as an IT guy in downtown Boston. I was green, and eager to impress. The company was around 90 people at the time, with several locations around the United States, and was growing fast. It would eventually grow to around 450 people, in a short four or five years.

I’d been there only a couple of months, when I was asked to come into work on a Saturday to do some server work with my direct supervisor. I thought this was a great opportunity to show my company spirit, so I got in early to get some things done ahead of schedule.

This server room in which we worked had been modified since the last tenant, and could have used a little more legitimate construction, but the company took the “it’s good enough” approach. There was a raised floor that had a 6” x 10” hole cut in it, through which a bundle of cables used to come up. Those cables had since been removed when the previous company left, and the hole was now empty.

We didn’t have a legitimate server rack either. We instead had a six-foot-tall, four shelved, chrome plated wire rack you might see at a supply store with plants hanging from it.  It came complete with wheels so you could take those plants in and out. This rack had on it two large APC battery backup units, our three file servers, two CRM database servers, the email Exchange server, and a couple of network router switches. Roughly $175,000 worth of hardware.

Part of Saturday’s task was to attach some peripheral device to one of the servers, but I couldn’t get in behind the server rack to reach it. I really wanted to get some of these tasks done before my supervisor got in, so the thought occurred to me, that this rack was on wheels. Problem solved, I thought! I slid my arm behind it and gently pushed, and the mobile rack began to slide away from the wall. I made sure to go slowly, so that nothing pulled out of the wall. Just as I began to stop pushing, the rack began to tip forward.

It happened in slow motion, and I realized that I had gently but firmly escorted this makeshift server rack’s left-front wheel into the now empty cable hole in the raised floor. I grabbed at the back of the top shelf and pulled, hoping to stop the forward lurch, but it was too late. I failed miserably, and was hoisted into the air by the sheer weight of all the hardware. I rode the makeshift rack like a canoe over the falls.

The rack stopped only when the top of it slammed into the file cabinet where we kept our software. The hardware however, continued to the floor. In a mere four seconds that played out over a lifetime, I watched $175,000 of hardware, and an unquantifiable sum of future profits in data, crash unceremoniously into the raised floor of a server room that I thought would be the last I’d ever set foot in. Standing petrified, my heart in my throat, I stared at the ruins of what I thought was this company, and my career.

I was thankfully able to get all the equipment removed from the rubble, and back on the now up-right plant rack. I connected it all, and was able to boot it all back up without issue. Save for some cosmetic damage to the file cabinet, some scuffed server towers, one hell of a bruised ego and a handful of gray hairs, everything was fine.

In this case, things turned out alright. This makeshift server rack may have saved the company a couple hundred dollars, but a proper rack is bolted into the floor and/or ceiling or wall. The servers are mounted securely on rails. By no means should there ever be a hole left in your server room floor, much less next to a server rack on wheels.

This company has long since gone out of business, (through no fault of my own, FYI!) and while this story is a hoot to tell at company Christmas parties now, it really should never have happened. Your hardware and data are the backbones of your company. If you’re not spending the money on the right equipment, you’re setting yourself up for very real possible disasters. When planning your IT set up, please consider using industry standard equipment. It may cost a little more than you’d like, but that cost compared to becoming the next Farmers Insurance commercial is pennies on the dollar.

If you have concerns that your infrastructure now could be subpar, want to talk about how you could better protect your data, or just want to talk to the guy that went four seconds on a swiftly tilting server rack, please give us a call.

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