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Never Push The Big Red Button! (Even Though You Know You REALLY Want To)

October 14, 2013

(Image Credit: Sago via

Frank had worked there about 4 years and in all that time, the Big Red Button had literally hung over his head. It was suspended from a pipe in the middle of the cubicles. Just high enough that no one would bump their head, but within easy reach. And in those four years, Frank had always wanted to push it, just to see what would happen. But, he never had. Today, was going to be different. Today, he decided, he was going to push the Big Red Button.

Frank worked at the same large non profit corporation that I did. He worked on the 6th floor of a large office building. At one point in the distant past, the 6th floor had been a data center. Strange as it might seem, the corporation had decided to locate their servers not in some concrete bunker buried in the ground somewhere, but in prime office space in the corporate office building. When the floor had been filled with rows and rows of servers in racks, the Big Red Button had been in the center of the room. Clearly, it had been important to the operation of the data center. The vision Frank had was of a sort of fuel shutoff button at a gas station. But, of course, there was no gasoline in a data center. Most likely it was the trigger for the fire suppression systems.

Datacenters are fragile things. As I talked about in Data Center CSI: The Day The Servers Died, there are many things that can harm a data center, moisture, dust, but one of the worst is fire. A fire in your data center is one of the worst case scenarios. And a normal sprinkler system won’t work. It would put out the fire, but all that water would kill whatever servers survived the fire. Most data centers us Halon. It’s a gas that is almost breathable. But, the point is that it sucks all the oxygen out of the room and the fire gets suffocated.

That was Frank’s best guess. That back when the floor had been a data center the Big Red Button was the kill switch to release the Halon gas. If that was case, there was no longer any need for it, and he could safely press it, right? Unless they left the Halon hooked up. Then, he and his coworkers would have terrible headaches and have to evacuate before they too suffocated. Better to leave it. As a programmer, Frank was familiar with the history of the floor and understood enough about data centers to not want to be the guy who triggered the alarm.

Eventually, the organization moved most of the servers to a dedicated data center in some concrete bunker buried in the ground somewhere. The rest of the servers were moved into closets and the space was refurbished with cubicles. . .except for that Big Red Button. It was a reminder that at one point the room had been used for a very different purpose.

But, today was going to be different. The time had come to remodel the floor again. And this time they were stripping it down to bare walls and building actual offices. They were gutting the entire floor. Frank’s team was being relocated elsewhere in the building. In fact, today was moving day. They were taking their personal items, and tonight the movers would come in and move their computers and phones before disassembling the cubicles and ripping up the carpet. Whatever purpose the Big Red Button had served in a previous life, it would be ripped out along with everything else.

Frank realized he might never see the Big Red Button again. The Big Red Button that had hung over his head like the Sword of Damocles for the past four years. He was pretty sure nothing would happen, but one way or another, he was going to find out today.

Don’t do it, Frank. There’s no telling what it might do.

Come on. We’ve sat here for four years staring at it and it’s done nothing. I’m pretty sure they disconnected it years ago.

I wouldn’t if I were you Frank.

Yeah? That’s because you aren’t brave like me!


And with that, Frank pushed the Big Red Button. . . and nothing happened. . . for about 30 seconds. And then the stairwell door burst open and 8 guys from the IT department came literally sprinting through the floor headed for the maintenance closet. The four that could cram into the closet watched the power indicator lights start to wink back on as the servers governing the phones and network routers for the entire building attempted to recover from their unexpected shutdown.

With a sinking feeling, Frank listened to them as his coworker suddenly found somewhere else to be.

I don’t know! It was like we had a complete power failure for like 2 seconds.

Did we lose the entire building?

No, just this closet. The desktop machines are fine, but the phones are all rebooting and we lost all network communication.

I’m not even sure where to start trying to track this down.

Frank’s mouth was suddenly dry and it was hard to get any sound out.

Ah. . .I think I can help with that.

Sometimes, it’s better to resist the urge and just leave your curiosity unfulfilled. Incidentally, Frank did not get fired. Our organization didn’t really do that sort of thing. But, he was pretty relentlessly mocked. And he NEVER EVER again pushed a Big Red Button.

(Josh Gret contributed to this column.)

Rodney M Bliss is an author, columnist and IT Consultant. He lives in Pleasant Grove, UT with his lovely wife and thirteen children.

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