Winning the Dongle Sweepstakes

I’ve had the intense misfortune lately of being tasked with deploying some high-end engineering software for two groups of engineers.

Now as anyone who’s been in IT since the Clinton or early Bush years knows, with engineering software comes licenses. And with licenses comes activation or licensing dongles. Or at least it did yesteryear.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERADongle. A word comical by its very nature. An appendage, seemingly out of place, begging to be cut off and thrown away. As useless as an appendix or your tail bone, a vestigal organ in your IT Department, ready to burst at any moment, leaking toxins all over your nascent IT career.

Dongles. Yeah, you looked around and saw 2013, software defined networks, cloud, virtual SANs,  IT freedom and business agility and then bam!

You get dongled. Out of nowhere. Getting dongled is like getting slapped upside the head with the rotting carcass of an inedible fish. We’re talking some serious old school, non agnostic-computing shit here people.

But I plugged the dongle in. Why won’t NT4 recognize it?

Yes back in the days when I was running several bare-metal CAD servers like Ideas M8 and, if I recall correctly, even Mathematica, the software manufacturers required serial dongle devices to hang off the back of the gigantic NT4 box. The dongle served two purposes for IT: 1) seeing it hanging off the back of a server was like a huge neon warning sign that constantly blinked GET THE F*(*@ AWAY FROM ME NOW, DON’T TOUCH! and 2) it was a physical manifestation of your intense pain in setting it up, worrying about it falling over, and fretting over whether your backups of that server would really work on different hardware.

Oy vey.

Nowadays things are a bit easier. In 2013, we at least have the option to license our engineering software via USB dongles or via FlexLM, the industry standard licensing manager for engineering programs. You still have to tie your server product to the hardware in some way (in most cases, the activation or license file is tied to IP or MAC address), but that’s easy in a virtual world where we’ve been freed from the tyranny of hard-coded MAC addresses.

Anyway, long introduction to say that there is something even worse than engineering software dongles. You might even call it the Dongle of Dongles, or perhaps the Head Dongle in Charge.

What is it this device, this Super Dongle, this slayer of project plans, this inflexible technology, this digital equivalent of an Islamic Fatwa?


CableCARD baby. Yeah you know the name. To talk of CableCARD, the dongle of dongles, you need to invoke some religion, to go biblical as it were. For, as it is written in 1 Samuel 18:7:

 The women sang as they played, and said, “Dongles have slain their thousands, but CableCARD its tens of thousands.”

Even the Hebrews writing thousands of years ago knew about the evils of CableCARD, the supposedly consumer-friendly, agnostic-computing-ish device whose purpose was to free you from having to rent a goddamned six year old black Scientific Atlanta Cable box (likely sticky and with stains on it for good measure) from your local government-backed cable monopoly just so you could have the privilege to pay for broadcast & cable TV with commercials.

cablecardCableCARD: the dongle that fools even sharp technologists by its simplicity. “Why what’s so complicated? It looks like one of those old school PCMCIA laptop cards. How hard could this possibly be?”

CableCARD: The pain it inflicts on those who try to deploy it at home echoes around the internet, haunting tech, tv, and internet forums alike, with ephemeral echoes of tales of horror, let down, dystopia and depression, and few -precious few!- stories of the brave persevering the fire and passing through the eye of the needle into freedom.

CableCARD: a device so nefarious, it turns normal non-geeks into Giant-Slayers, like this guy from some Tivo forum who inspired me as I was wrestling the beast:

It’s 4:52, Halloween, late afternoon. I’ve been on the phone with either one of two Time Warner phone support services 3 times; TiVo’s phone support service (twice); getting in my car and driving 10 miles for the distinct privilege of waiting in line for 20 minutes with the deadbeat and disgraced to pickup a new CableCard; 3 times with the CableCard activation service; all while searching and posting to the Tivo Community Forum… since 7:30 this morning. I am on a mission that will be my legacy. I’m single-handedly taking-on The 21st Century Corporate, Media Empire. That’s who I am and I will not be denied justice.

CableCARD: A device…no scratch that…a way of life with a purpose and a prize at the end. Unfortunately for the agnostic computing minded, that prize you get at the end of your epic struggle against the Man is…re-installing an old scratched DVD of Windows 7 Home Premium with Media Center Edition and watching TV on that and an unplanned, confused, and emergency period in which you buy an MCE Remote off Amazon only to realize sadly that it can’t even turn the TV off because it’s actually a USB HID device, and not a proper remote and guess what, you’re now an Ir expert in addition to everything else.

CableCARD: It’s just the size of a PCMCIA adapter and in contrast to the Scientific Atlanta box the woman at TWC keeps mistakenly inputting on your account (Yes, I’m quite sure I said CableCARD, for the 1000th time ma’am), it’s so tiny and it’s not going to mess with the feng shui of your living room or the TV you mounted meticulously on the wall over the course of an entire afternoon and the spousal unit will be quite happy that getting TV doesn’t necessarily mean getting big black boxes with lots of wires to place under the tv and oh it’s going to be great, really, haha, really it will, just hang tough, you’ll see.

And then you step back, you pause, you take a deep breath, and you look at what your hatred for renting one black box hath wrought:




and this:

Yes. I did it. I bought an open box PC from Best Buy for $230, or about 9 months worth of black cable box rental

which you had to buy at the last minute because your plans to build a home lab meant you can’t run Hyper-V or vSphere or even goddamned Virtual PC on a computer that needs be frisked, patted down, and butt cheeks spread by the DRM Police CableCARD brings with him to every party because he’s a f#$*(#$ kill-joy party-pooper

and, taking it all in, you break down and cry out to the universe, why?!? Why lord, why is it like this, why does it have to be so complicated, why can’t someone regulate this shit and make it better?” and then you fall to the ground sobbing because though you’ve met and defeated CableCARD, you’re still trying to conceal black boxes and wires. Only  now you’re doing it by adopting the habits of a junkie: hiding your shame and purchases inside used Ikea magazine containers, hoping no one will see them, and asking your local dealer for a deal on some used merchandise, it doesn’t have to be Grade A, a D- will do, you just need it now.

And here is what you get from your titanic battle with CableCARD:


Author: Jeff Wilson

20 yr Enterprise IT Pro | Master of Public Admin | BA in History | GSEC #42816 | Blogging on technology & trust topics at our workplaces, at our homes, and the spaces in between.

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