So after many years in the industry, you think that you've got things pretty much figured out. Then something crops up which practically has you tearing your hair out, and you begin to comprehend how frustrating computers can be for the inexperienced. Forget about how we've grown accustomed to using right mouse clicks at the right time and the right place, all it took was a lightning storm to throw me for a major loop. It cost me money and time to recover from a situation which never should have arisen in the first place!

As an information technology consultant, I'm well aware of the importance of protecting computer equipment. Even though the power supply of a typical home PC contains a transformer, it's still possible for power surges to propogate through those rudimentary defences. I use surge protection power bars on all feed lines to my equipment and felt that, shy of a fully-fledged UPS (Uninterruptable Power Supply,) I should be reasonably well covered, right? How little we know!

Here in Atlanta on Thursday evening, August 24th, we experienced a major line of thunderstorms passing through the area. Looking out of my window at the office (flexing due to the pressure gradient,) I saw winds blowing down Lenox Street at a speed I estimated to be at least 50 miles per hour. At one point, I was truly fearful of a tornado developing. While unusual in the downtown area of a city, they're not unheard of: witness Salt Lake City and Nashville.

Riding home, we could see lightning obscured by heavy rain just to the East-South East of the area of my house. I had seen the distinctive anvil shape of a huge (30,000') cumulonimbus cloud to the West-North West and knew that more lightning and rain was on the way. What I didn't expect to find was what I encountered when I arrived home and went to check my e-mail.

I run three different systems at home: two RedHat Linux boxes and one Windows '98 system for legacy purposes. All of them are Compaq Presarios; inexpensive yet powerful and reliable systems. Both of the Linux systems were powered down and the electricity had obviously been interrupted at some point since all of the digital clocks in the house were flashing. I later discovered that even my bedside lamp (halogen, incorporating a transformer) had been fried.

Knowing that I wanted to shut everything down securely before the next bout, I tried to power-up the Linux boxes. While one booted with no problems save for the usual fsck delay, the other machine stubbornly refused to proceed beyond the POST (Power-On Self Test.) I shut everything down as best I could and then resumed my efforts after the expiration of the "severe thunderstorm warning" (note: not a watch but a warning!)

Applying the usual problem determination approach, I found that the SMC NIC (Network Interface Card) would hang the whole system if installed. The Netgear NIC wouldn't prevent booting but wouldn't indicate life on the hub end of the connection either. Swapping cables wouldn't provide that comforting green glow on the hub port either. Net result: two toasted NICs. Strange that the two zombies happened to be on the same system when two other NICs on different systems survived, but that's a problem for another time.

On Friday, I went out to CompUSA (not my favorite store, but convenient to the office) to purchase a couple of replacement cards. The SMC 10 Mbps EZCards now retail for about $11.49; an absolute bargain in my book! Needless to say, the store was out of stock on that product and didn't expect to receive any more in the future. Why is it that when a product like that finally becomes financially viable, it's not replaced on the shelves when the stock runs out? Not enough of a profit margin perhaps?

Anyway, I wasn't planning on buying two of the same model of NIC anyway. Those of you who've been around for awhile know that, while there shouldn't be a problem, once in a while you encounter this really wonky situation where the cards have decided to swap identities, quite unbeknownst to you! Having experienced this behaviour in the past, I prefer to use different cards and different drivers when using more than one NIC in a machine.

So now that CompUSA was out of EZ Card 10s, I was facing a wide array of 10/100 cards from various manufacturers. I took a pass on the no-name and relatively unknown brands and selected an SMC EZNet 10/100 card along with a Linksys EtherFast LNE100TX. Neither my hub nor my cable modem run at 100 Mbps but the only available, and inexpensive, 10 Mbps cards were ISA. I don't know about you, but I just don't need that aggravation!

I took the time to locate the latest drivers from both manufacturers and made sure that I had the necessary files on diskette. I knew that I'd have to perform a source RPM (RedHat Package Manager) install and compile the drivers, but I've done that before resonably painlessly. When it comes right down to it, that was probably the easiest part of the process! It was all the other quirks which led to my defolliculization.

The Compaq Presario 5441 has four expansion slots (once you throw away the useless "56K" modem included in the package.) The bottom two slots can accomodate ISA cards while the top three (yes, there's an overlap) can accomodate PCI cards. Since the top slot is somewhat difficult to access, thanks to a motherboard connector between two of the card sockets, I decided to use the middle two slots for the new NICs. I should mention at this point that these were the same two that I had been using prior to the lightning visit.

I use MediaOne (now AT&T, congratulations!) for cable modem internet access and probably wasted six hours running various combinations of cards and computers in an attempt to get a DHCP-issued IP address. After holding for an hour (I'm not kidding you here, and BellSouth Mobility won't be kidding either when they send me the bill,) I found out that the reason for the lack of response to my DHCP request was that my MAC (Media Access Control) address wasn't entered into their system.

Word of warning here: despite the fact that they're supposed to be selling you bandwidth, they require you to register your MAC address in order to get an IP address from the DHCP (Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol) server. Woebetide that you have a number of machines connected to their cable modem through a hub! They want to charge you for every machine you have connected to that hub. Don't be surprised if they start sniffing packets and claim that you're running a hub behind a firewall. It's the difference between site licensing and per host (or per user) licensing. I didn't sign up for this and I'll bet you didn't either!

After providing the MAC address of the interface, I got the expected run-around when the representative asked me to do something quite impossible on my end. They don't support Linux in any way, shape or form, and it's an easy way to end a call for them. Not really a problem, since Linux users tend to know what they're doing. Once the MAC/DHCP problem was solved, I had my system up and running within five minutes.

Of course, that was only one of the NIC cards in the system. The Linksys card, despite all my efforts, refused to talk to the internal network. I would get "Destination host not accessible" as well as the ubiquitous "Transmit timed out" errors no matter how many times I downloaded the latest source code and compiled it. This problem took me most of today (Saturday) to solve. Read the next paragraph only if you have a strong stomach!

Given the nature of motherboard layout, and the exortation that the card had to be installed in a PCI "master" slot, I moved the Linksys card from the #2 to the #1 (topmost) slot. You can imagine what happened: everything started working correctly. All of my connectivity has been restored and I can get back to doing "real" work. Total cost: $40 for replacement cards and almost 12 hours of my time. I really should have been out on a raft on the pool today but this thing just wasted a complete (sunny) Saturday.

Conclusion: If we don't do a lot more, including improving the documentation for the systems, interface cards and operating systems, we're going to continue to marginalize people who just don't have the time or money to solve this kind of problem. I've been in this business for 22 years now and it still took me an inordinate amount of time to get my system up and running. Moving a card from one slot to another!? It's illogical and certainly unintuitive. Let's keep this in mind the next time someone approaches us with a "simple" question!

Copyright (c) 2000 by Phil Selby