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You’ll Never Be Able To Reproduce It

May 29, 2014

I don’t believe in “anomolies,” Rodney.

What do you mean?

I mean I don’t believe that computers and networks just randomly break. I think that if you investigate long enough and well enough, you can reproduce any issue.

Jack is the network manager at work. He’s very good at what he does and his engineers are a joy to work with. But, in this case, I think Jack is wrong.

It’s been a while since I told a WordPerfect story. This one goes way back to the beginnings of WordPerfect Office. (Back To Where It All Began.) WordPerfect Office, which later became Novell GroupWise, was first released on August 8, 1988. (8/8/88) The first service pack came out two months later (10/10/88.) Both releases were horrible. But, everything begins somewhere. It got much better.

As I explained in How Batman Almost Got Me Fired, WordPerfect was a file based messaging system. Pretty much all email systems today have databases driving them and storing their messages. But, 25 years ago, file based systems were state-of-the-art. Everyone had them, cc:Mail, Microsoft Mail, and WordPerfect Office.

The problem with a file based email system is how to keep track of file names. You don’t want emails being copied over each other like some kid’s english paper titled “Doc1.doc.”

Microsoft “solved” this problem with something called a “control” file. It was a file that contained a counter. Every time someone wanted to send an email the email client went to the control file, got a number and then incremented the Control file.

When you open and close a file a whole bunch of times, you risk it becoming corrupt. And the Control file did. . .a lot.

WordPerfect took a different approach. They had an algorithm that would calculate a unique name based on several factors. The programmer who wrote the algorithm came down to talk to support one day.

What factors go into the message file name?

Well, it’s a whole bunch of things, the clock on the sender’s PC, the size of the message, a hash of the senders name and a couple of others.

But, would it be possible for two people with similar names, to send messages that were exactly the same size at the exactly same time on their clock and create conflicting file names?

Well. . .

But, is it possible?

I guess, but if you got the error once, you’d never be able to duplicate it.

I wish Jack had been there to hear it.

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

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One Comment
  1. Free-range Oyster permalink

    It sounds like Jack has a lot more faith in the science of our profession than I do. I quite openly admit that a small but significant portion of what I do is essentially technological hoodoo. Change of outcome with no apparent change in variables? Every programmer has at least one such story.

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