Pouring one out for my old adversaries : XP & Optiplex Capacitors

Last night, whilst tooling around the Daietta Lab and playing with Nexenta v 4.01, I had occasion to pause for a moment, toss a few choice shots back, and reminisce & reflect on the end of Windows XP support, which is today, April 8, 2014.

Ten to 12 years ago, I was a mid-level/tier 2 helpdesk type at a typical Small to Medium Enterprise in California. The Iraq war had just started, George Bush was in office and Palm, maker of the Treo, was king of the bulky, nerds-only smartphone segment. 802.11g was hot stuff, and your 2.4GhZ spectrum, while still a junk band in the eyes of the FCC, was actually quite usable. HDMI had just been introduced, and plasmas were all the rage, and you didn’t need a bunch of dongle adapters in the boardroom to connect a projector to a laptop. EVDO data was OMG FAST, and Apple was still called Apple Computer. In place of guest Wifi, we had guest Ethernet (“Tell him to use the Red cable. The Red cable!!” I remember shouting to junior guys. The red cable went to the guest internet switch).

At work, life was simpler in IT. I don’t think we even used VLANs at that old job.

Basically, we had physical servers, a DS3 circuit, Windows XP on the clients, and Optiplex GX280s.

Lots of them.

48285005XP, of course, was new then. Only 2-3 years old, it was Microsoft’s most successful operating system in like forever. It united at last the NT kernel & the desktop of Windows 98, but had a nice GUI front-end, soft-touch buttons, a color scheme by Crayola, and a font/typography system that still, to this day, provides fodder for the refined Mac font/typography snobs.

But you could join it to the Domain, use Group Policy against it, and mass-deploy those things like it was going out of style. This was a Big Deal in the enterprise. Ghost & RIS baby!

Hardware-wise, we didn’t worry about iPhone apps, Android vulnerabilities, or the cloud taking our jobs. No, all we had were Optiplexes. Acres of them, seemingly.

The GX280 desktop. A classic
The GX280 desktop. A classic

Small form factor & desktop-style Optiplex GX280s to be exact. Plastic and ugly, but you could open them up without tools. They were light enough you could carry them around without grabbing a bulky cart, and they offered plenty of surface area for the users to stick pictures of their cat or whatnot on them. Great little machines.

If I’m sounding nostalgic, I am. Getting a bit weepy here.

But then I recall the two straight years of pain. Three years maybe even.

The rise of XP came during the rise of the Internet in the post-dotcom bubble era. Want to get on something called the Internet and do some ecommerce shopping? Have I got an OS & Browser for you: XP + IE 6, or what one might call a Hacker’s Delight.

Oh how many hours were lost learning about, then trying to fix, then throwing up our hands collectively in frustration and saying, “Fuck it. Just RIS/Ghost the damn thing.” in reaction to horror shows like this in the pre-Service Pack 2 days of XP:

When restoring from backup tapes is less painful than fixing this, you have # ITFAIL

And then, coincidentally at the same time, the Optiplex GX280s started failing en masse. Reason? Bad or cheap motherboard capacitors. I shit you not. The capacitors around the old CPU socket just started failing en masse across Dell’s entire GX280 fleet. It was epic: years later, the Times reported some 22% of the 21 million Optiplex machines sold by Dell in 2003-2005 had failed capacitors.

The fix wasn’t difficult; just swap the motherboards. Any help desk monkey could do that. But I remember distinctly how shocked I was that we bought Dell-badged computers but got Packard Bell reliability instead. And I remember boiling resentment and rage against Michael Dell as I walked the halls of that old job, arms stuffed with replacement motherboards.

These were the first episodes of #VendorFail in my IT career. There are many stories like these in IT, but this one is mine. XP Spyware & Optiplex Capacitors were two solid years of my life in IT. I heart Microsoft, but damnnnnn those were some tough days in IT.

Of course, all that being said, today’s desktop is a lot more secure, but our back-end stuff has holes so deep & profound that even experts are shocked. Witness the new Heartbreak OpenSSL vulnerability!

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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