Bad hardware

Wednesday 25 May 2005

Yesterday, I had a bad morning at work. Nothing was working right. It's working now, and I guess I learned something.

I was working on a new feature in our product that required changes in both the client and server. The server runs on Windows 2003, but the Dell desktop computers we have won't run that OS for some reason to do with network card drivers, so I've installed the server on a Virtual PC. So I have the server and the client on the same box, the client running on Windows XP on the physical hardware, and the server on Windows 2003 in the Virtual PC. To add to the Alice-In-Wonderland confusion, I typically use this machine through a Remote Desktop Connection from my laptop.

Yesterday morning, the client and the server wouldn't talk to each other. Or, they would, but only intermittently. Other times, SOAP requests would time out, with no other error information displayed.

I checked the server's log files. No info. I checked the web server log files: nothing strange, though sometimes there seemed to be no evidence of the client connecting at all, which in itself was strange.

Maybe it was a Virtual PC thing. I applied a recently released service pack. Nothing improved. I applied Windows Updates to the operating system. No better.

I used Ethereal to examine the network traffic. There were many strange things happening there, but I don't understand most of that packet stuff even when everything is going right. It was telling us that TCP checksums were wrong, for example.

At this point, the Remote Desktop began acting up, so I had to haul in a monitor and keyboard to use on the box. The network was getting flakier by the minute. I finally gave up and asked our part-time IT guy for help. He gave a cursory glance over the situation, and said, "I don't know, maybe it's a bad NIC card. Let's try a new one."

As a software engineer, the tempation is always great to assign blame to other components: the compiler, the operating system, the libraries, the hardware, the network. I've learned through hard experience that it is almost never one of those things. When you are running your own software, and especially when you are debugging your own software, don't be fooled: no matter how strange things are behaving, the fault lies in your software. So when IT guy shrugged and said it might be a bad NIC, I didn't hold out much hope. On the other hand, nothing else I had tried was working, and at least someone else was working on it.

So IT guy plugged in a new network card, and everything worked flawlessly! It was as if SOAP timeouts had never existed. I guess in retrospect the Ethereal traces should have put up a red flag. This machine had been working fine for months. Now all of a sudden it doesn't work? Who can explain such a thing?

Sometimes, it really is the hardware.


Damien 10:53 PM on 25 May 2005

Did you check the line voltage? :)

andrew 12:19 PM on 26 May 2005

Where's your multi-meter!? You should have checked the Ohms on the wire! Dunce!

fred 8:58 AM on 2 Jun 2008

duh. everyone knows that. of course it was the ohms. Although you should have checked the crossed wires inside the monitor. Sometimes the corard wires can play up and re route the current so it changes hardware specifications. good good.

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