Dodged a howitzer this time

We were lucky. Very lucky. Saturday morning (for me), I logged into from my home in Beijing. Immediately, my friend Bruce, who was also logged in at the time, sent me a message saying that we had a serious problem: “The heads are banging.” I had to ask him what he meant by heads. I thought that perhaps he meant potheads were attacking the computer. Then without warning me, he rebooted the machine, which had the effect of booting me off. When I logged back in five minutes later, I was able to ask him what the problem was. The hard drive was making noise, a sign that it was about to die. Oh! So that’s what he meant by “the heads were banging.” (A little context goes a long way, in my book.)

The machine,, is an old Pentium 100 running FreeBSD 4-STABLE. It’s been in the service of its current role for about three years now. Bruce added a second hard drive a few months ago to provide space for backup and archiving purposes. So it wasn’t clear in the present emergency whether the new or the old hard drive was about to die. (I suppose if he had a stethoscope handy, he could have determined the source of the noise.) Losing the old hard drive would have resulted in much downtime since it is the system drive. Losing the new drive would have wiped out backups, but the system could have carried on without it.

We make regular, automated backups of the system, but having fresh backups is prefered when you might have to rebuild the system. So Bruce and I spent the next two hours creating backups of various system and user files and transfering them off the machine before its impending doom. The noise kept coming and going, and that kept us even further in suspense.

We were communicating using a chat window running on the machine, but we agreed to meet on Yahoo chat in case the system went down and cut off our line of communication. That never happened. So after the backing up was done, Bruce went to watch the news on TV and I needed to leave the house and get on with my Saturday. I checked in with him much later to see what had happened with the hard drives. He was supposed to power down the machine and pull it apart to find the source of the noise. Well, it turned out not to be the hard drives at all. It was the CPU cooling fan dying a slow death. In an email, he said to me, “That was the closest I’ve come to witnessing a hard drive dying without it actually dying. We dodged a howitzer this time!”

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