System Administrator Concerns: It’s the Static, Stupid

STATIC!
    Photo by kretyen

This article on Tech Republic showing a computer that was the victim of a lightening strike got me thinking. (WARNING: if you’re squeamish about graphic computer carnage, don’t view the photos.) What it got me thinking about was static and computers. Back when I first got into IT I constantly heard about the dangers of static electricity. It was only the most daring soul who would breach the hermetic seal of the computer case without guaranteeing they were properly grounded. 

It didn’t take me long to start thinking that there was more hype than substance to the claims of static damaging computer components. I have no doubt that are plenty of components lying in pauper’s graves that were killed by an errant arc from someone’s fingertip. But how many times was static the go-to scapegoat when something went wrong that no one wanted to bother explaining? I remember very early in my career when I accidentally dropped a screw onto the motherboard of a running computer, so I am certain why that ISA slot was broken (I did say it was early in my career.) However, there was a time when the mysterious death of a component almost required that static be the first straw grasped.

It hardly seems that way anymore. “You must have static-ized it,” is very rare these days. Have we System Administrators gotten better at dealing with static or do we know better that static is usually just an easy excuse? I’m sure it’s still possible to build up enough of a charge to fry some modern components, but how likely is it while standing on a tiled floor after touching metal racks and server casings? I’m sure that if your server room is located in the middle of a cotton-ball factory carpeted with 1970s era shag and your company uniform is a corduroy jumpsuit with fuzzy bunny slippers you may want to slip on a grounding strap. Otherwise, we’ve learned to be less paranoid.

So what does that tell us about modern computing concerns? Are there things today that are like the static of yesteryear where blame seems to automatically go in a knee-jerk fashion? It seems to be when some new, and not yet fully ripe, technology starts to get adopted it continues to be blamed for problems long after those problems have been ironed out. That makes sense, because there was a time when the problems were real, so the knee-jerk reaction was probably right.

Windows instability seems like one of those historical issues. There was a time when a BSOD was almost certainly a bug in the OS and a reboot was the fix. Nowadays, though, a BSOD is more likely to be a hardware problem that isn’t going to go away with a simple reboot. I’m sure you can think of some others.