back to article 'I crashed AOL for 19 hours and messed up global email for a week'

Welcome again to Who, me? In case you've missed previous editions of the column, it's a confessional in which readers share their stories of having broken stuff. Badly. This week, a fellow reader named "Bert" asked you to "Cast your mind back to the mid-90s when America Online (AOL) was the biggest online service and the …

Anonymous Coward

Re: Sendmail hacking to the rescue

"by the time buying a HDD for a home computer was a thing that even non-NASA personnel could reasonably do, nobody used anything other than 1.44 floppies"

Nope. My family's second computer had a hard drive and a 5.25" floppy drive. Played many games off of 5.25" floppies. I can't remember if the first one had a HDD; I do recall it had two 5.25" floppy drives.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Sendmail hacking to the rescue

You had had 180K floppies? I had 85K ZX Microdrive cartridges. Although sometimes you could get one that would format to 88 or even 89K....

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Re: Sendmail hacking to the rescue

Formatting a microdrive cartridge would stretch the tape and increase its potential capacity. If you were a really boring nerd, you could write a program that would repeatedly format the cartridge then measure its capacity, stopping after two formats gave more-or-less the same value. Or the tape snapped.

Kids of today- tell 'em you used to literally physically stretch your storage to get a couple of extra kilobytes out of it, they'll ignore you and hope you go away.

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Devil

Dig

For those too young to remember, AOL used to bombard us with "free" CDs. The worst mistake that you could make was to put one in your PC. Trying to remove AOL was almost impossible, it wrote itself into multiple registry locations. (possibly hundreds!)

Future archaeologists will find an entire strata of discarded AOL CDs :(

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Happy

Re: Dig

One time, during college, my friends and I drove to a computing goods store, picked up a couple of free AOL cds and took them back to Campus to use as frisbees.

Good times.

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Re: Dig

My friend decorated his bedroom with AOL CD's, shiny side out.

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Re: Dig

A guy had set up a website to collect unwanted AOL CDs and promised to deliver them back to AOL as soon as he'd reached 1 million to protest against the huge waste. As far as I recall, he'd only reached a few 100k by the time every ISP had stopped sending CDs anyway.

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Re: Dig

"Future archaeologists will find an entire strata of discarded AOL CDs"

Ah yes, the Eternal September line of 1993, up there with the K-T* and P-T boundaries

* oops, showing my age: K-Pg for those with hair on their head rather than their chin

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Re: Dig

Jason Scott has been trying to digitise every AOL cd. I'm not sure how far he's got, but future historians will thank him. Probably not for this, but they will thank him.

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Re: Dig

I still have some that I tie onto strings to hang over my brassicas as bird scarer's. They hate AOL almost as much as me!

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Re: Dig

The downside to no longer getting CD's through the door is now my kid will never know the awesomeness of putting an AOL CD in the microwave and watching that mother fucker light up.

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Happy

Re: Dig

Ah, I still remember the smell and awesome patterns they made. We used the nuked discs as coasters.

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Re: Dig

The floppies are more fun. I come across a couple every so often digging through what-not I have not seen in years (probably should just torch the stuff and be done with it.) Toss 'em into DOSBox just for kicks or for real torture run them in PCTask on the ol' Amiga.

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Re: Dig

"AOL has proven that they have the ability to send a CD or three to every chordate on the planet once a month."

-- Douglas Henke

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Re: Dig

Ah, fond memories of those CD's. They made cheap coasters for coffee cups and the like. When had a few boring moments at work, they became Frisbees. One of my friends was an avid target shooter and would use them as targets. Yeah.. I shudder to think of the AOL CD strata layer.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Dig

"For those too young to remember, AOL used to bombard us with "free" CDs. The worst mistake that you could make was to put one in your PC. Trying to remove AOL was almost impossible, it wrote itself into multiple registry locations."

Registry locations? I recall AOL floppies showing up everywhere, and I am reasonably sure they only needed MSDOS...

Very few people had CDROM drives. I managed a special deal available for Microsoft employees and their families that could net a 2x CDROM drive, complete with the SCSI card, for only $400. No other non-business users I knew had them for years after that.

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Re: Dig

Early AOL floppys came with a "runtime" version of PC/GEOS that could be modified to become bootable. I know a couple of folks who used this as their primary GUI ...

For some unknown reason, I've been in the habit of burying "time capsules" of miscellaneous industry tat since 1993. One of those archives contains AOL floppys, the next one in the series contains AOL CDs.

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Re: Dig

Trying to remove AOL was almost impossible

One company I worked for we had a real charmer for a marketing director (took pride in the fact that he could make his secretary cry, refused to answer his own emails and generally treated anyone lower-grade than him with utter contempt - especially IT..).

We had a *very* strict 'thou shalt not install non-work software on thy PC rule' - breahing of which was a disciplinary offence and could lead to dismissal.

Said director had finally been given a laptop so he 'could work from home'. After a week, he stormed into the Desktop support cube and threw the laptop at us saying "it doesn't work". Eventually, we managed to get out of him that the corporate dialup (which was flaky on a good day) no longer worked.

Delving into the reasons why, it soon became obvious that he'd install AOL. And his home person finance software. And had an 'interesting' collection of images (this was the late 90's so nothing too amazing but they still drove a chieftan tank through the corporate guidelines).

The presence of the AOL dialler meant that there was no way whatsoever to get the corporate dialler to work. Even uninstalling it failed so we informed said director that he needed to save his information off the laptop as we were going to have to rebuild it.

Once we had the laptop back, we nuked it from orbit.. Corporate dialup now worked again.

Two days later, he was back in our cube screaming that he was going to get us all sacked because we'd deleted all his finance data - turns out that the home finance programme saved all its data in the programme directory (as was common in the late 90s) and that he hadn't bothered to back that up so all his data was gone. He went off to HR while I went to have a chat with the local site director (a really nice guy who had had this marketing director foisted on him by headquarters but nevertheless outranked him).

Site director apparently tore very large lumps out of Marketing director and told him to amend his ways or he would get relocated to the smallest, most rural backwoods US location that could be found and left there to rot (company policy was that directors *never* got sacked - even if the site they worked at got closed then they just got found an essentially-meaningless job elsewhere).

He never spoke to us again - any interaction was via his secretary (who also benefitted from his enforced change in attitude).

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Re: Dig

awesomeness of putting an AOL CD in the microwave

It stinks like hell though - and I'm sure that the vapourised plastics are probably really, reaaly bad for you.

(Doesn't work for modern CD-R's quite as well - they use a dye layer now rather than a metallised film)

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Re: Dig

I still have a bag of cover-mount floppies and CDs from 1990s computer mags, mainly because I've never found a good way to recycle them. Alas, I have plenty real coasters and no need for bird-scarers,

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Windows

Re: Dig

>"Ah yes, the Eternal September line of 1993, up there with the K-T* and P-T boundaries"

BIFF!

Ah yes, check out that glorious Internet Oracle .sig.

Sind3y! B1ffsm4nia! B1FF R00LZ!!

I miss the Internet Oracle.

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Re: Dig

That's Usenet Oracle, you heathen!

After pondering deeply, the Oracle decrees: Citing Wikipedia when there is a perfectly good Jargon File entry is grounds for immediate banishment, only revocable by printing an ASCII art Snoopy on a line printer and hand delivering it to the Harvard Science Center's observatory whilest waving a rubber chicken.

n.b. Biff was not a barker, that is a baseless, malicious lie!

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I remember.... and feeling vaguely smug that I had decided to get a Demon account instead of AOL.

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.....the paucity of early ISP choice...

JANET, Compuserv, Demon, then force9 (later to become plusnet), for me. I have since BT'd, but I'm better now thanks (A&A if someone else is paying, but plusnet still used, and yes I know they are BT owned...but they are not BT. You can ring them, for a start. With A&A, or more specifically AK, I installed an early-ish consumer level voip system - network alchemy, I think - back in the days when the Rev came out to install the equipment on the cabling I had pre-installed. I had a nokia 9000 and the time and AK had just got a brand new 9110 - so it would be 1998). I was gutted when Demon went under. I first hosted my own website in the Demon days..and it's still running now...but hosted under very different circumstances.

Aol was always one to be avoided. The volume, and quality, of the advertising was the clue.

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Anonymous Coward

Hmm

I seem to recall that would be about the time my organisation rolled out Lotus CCMail after which I pointed out it cached your User and password in plain text in the .INI file (which didn't go down well, apparently messengers are still not liked...)

Was also about the time I got my first 18.8baud modem and screeched onto the internet with CompuServe along with hideous numeric email address.

In more recent times I was involved in one of the many early internet bank launches. You will remember these as several crashed at launch due to the number of reporters wanting to report how they would crash at launch...

this case though I identified that one of the key web handling programs was a flagrant copy of he reference code in the OS vendors manual, and guess what, it didn't work and didn't release resources on exit. Therefore repeatedly crashing.

Turn up on customer site miles away from home after being called to help, getting late, just told buy some new pants and shirts on expenses, you are not going home until it's fixed... Wasn't even my code!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hmm

"[...] screeched onto the internet with CompuServe along with hideous numeric email address."

When our company gave us access to the internet all our email addresses were derivatives of the company's X400 format address - which were neither short nor memorable.

In spite of the company having a short brand name - it was several years before we got fred.bloggs@zzz.com

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Re: Hmm

I worked at one of the last JANET X25 sites before the service closed in 1997 - the internal network was TCP/IP but one Unix host had Coloured Book Protocol support for JANET access to the Uni over the road.

Getting mail from SMTP (internal) to X25 (JANET) to X400 hosts was... interesting.

Sometimes, someone even managed to get a reply to me.

Just not very often.

(Hmm, maybe El Reg needs a "What did YOU do in the War, Grandad ?" icon...)

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Hmm

"Getting mail from SMTP (internal) to X25 (JANET) to X400 hosts was... interesting."

SMTP may have taken some of the fun out of email. I think bang paths had character. I wonder if uucp will make a comeback for interplanetary email transfer?

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Re: Hmm

and screeched onto the internet with CompuServe along with hideous numeric email address.

Strangely, I came across my old Compuserve address only the other day, it was 101360.1534@compuserve.com

It's dead now, of course.

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"Bert told us that his errors led to hate mail from noted distributors of unsolicited commercial email"

Shows how much conviction he had in AOL for emails, he obviously didn't use the service himself.

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hows that obvious?

especially in light of the next paragraph:

"He assumes he got plenty of angry emails to but was blissfully aware of just how many people hated him – because their emails couldn’t get through!"

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This perked me up. I needed to hear somebody else's biggentale of biggenwoe :)

Ahhhh, the trials and tribulations of being a sysadmin...

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Similar but different at Yahoo

On or about 2002 a similar failure occurred at Yahoo when a new MX was added that inadvertently exceeded the max UDP packet size and thus caused all DNS queries to fall back to TCP.

The sudden influx of huge numbers of TCP connections swamped the DNS servers such that our update mechanisms failed when we attempted a reversion. We couldn't even ssh into them to make a manual fix. Furthermore the servers also stopped responding to UDP queries!

We had to get our data-centre folk to disconnect each server from the network so they could log in at the console and apply a manual fix to unwind the mess.

While no mail should have been lost it caused queries to *.yahoo.com to timeout for a number of hours so presumably many millions of dollars of lost ad revenue during that time.

Unsurprisingly the instigator of the change lost their DNS update privileges but they did keep their job and went on to become a VP.

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Re: Similar but different at Yahoo

Seems unfair that a reasonably unexpected failure of a routine update means that you're disqualified from maintaining that system in future. On the other hand, you probably would want someone else to do it in future, because you've used up your "get out of cockup free" card there.

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Re: Similar but different at Yahoo

"went on to become a VP."

Al Gore?

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Re: Similar but different at Yahoo

Ah the old "promote him so he can't do any more damage" trick.

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Re: Similar but different at Yahoo

I was thinking Marissa Meyer, but she eventually made CEO

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Compuserve

I was summoned to the top people one day and told that henceforth I would be working on something called Novell NetWare. As the official support channel from Novell was via Compuserve I was given an account and a dialup modem.

I found it amazingly useful and you could do all sorts of things such as book flights electronically which was unheard of back then. Unfortunately the bosses forgot to tell me it cost something like 25 dollars an hour to use, with predictable results :(

Afterwards I found that if you waited until 7PM it "only" cost 7 dollars so I used to login at 7:01 and typed my fingers off trying to cram everything in.

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Anonymous Coward

In hindsight

I bet he wishes he'd taken AOL email down not for 19 hours, but for 19 years.

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Re: In hindsight

hehehehe :)

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BlackBerry 2011

>It's hard to top Bert's story for sheer scale

Only one I can think of is the BlackBerry outage of 2011 which I believe was caused in Reading. So someone here might know about it.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: BlackBerry 2011

Reminds me of The Great Tea Trolley Disaster of '67.

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Anonymous Coward

I know of a rumor, a person who shall remain unnamed,

broke up with their girlfriend and decided to DDOS her.

He and a friend bought a botnet and proceeded to DDOS her..

She was in Ghana and their DDOS took the whole of Ghana off the internet...

Whoops!!!!

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Heard similar...

I was told a similar story by an ex network-op of mine - as I recall (and feel free to correct me if I'm wrong) but it was something silly like Ghana (or at least, the state I was told about) having a very small netblock allocation as a country, or only having a single gateway in, or the whole lot being proxied through one server, or other similar 'brick wall' hard limit connectivity problem that up until then, hadn't been a problem.

Then 'something' occured that made their IP range get flagged up, the whole internet went down for the country.

I think the story I was told was about a Gulf state (Jordan? Qatar?) but it's apocryphal anyway, so it might be the same tale.

Anyway, reminiscence over, back to work, sigh.

Steven R

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Heard similar...

'Something' occured that made their IP range get flagged up, the whole internet went down for the country

This sort of thing used to occasionally happen for the NHS. You'd end up having to answer captchas to use Google, and get snotty "suspicious usage pattern" messages from other websites.

I haven't seen it in a while, so maybe the proxies have been properly sorted out now. Who am I kidding.

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AOL memories

Well do I remember AOL. We had it back in the '90s. Used a 2400 bps modem to connect, and everything took FOREVER. My parents finally got fed up and bought a 28.8 kbps modem - and got no increase in speed. We rapidly switched to a local ISP, which was WAY faster.

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Re: AOL memories

My first modem was also 2400 bps, it was a 'loan' modem from where I worked as they'd just bought a 28.8kbs one.

I just used it for BBSs etc at the time. I remember one local computer shop (PCs, Amigas, Atari STs etc) had things like stock-lists on a dial-up BBS system. You could even pre-order items via the BBS, and then go pick them up. (No payment system etc back then). They even gave you a free Compuserve email address (wow! ;-) ).

Once I got proper Internet access (Demon), I went and bought a USRobotics external 56k modem. Was in an aluminium case, almost exactly the same size as an external 3.5" floppy drive. This was all on an Amiga, didn't get round to switching to PC till the late 90s!

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Anonymous Coward

Re: AOL memories

Ahh, yes, AOL Tymnet nodes. Capped out a 4800 baud in most cases. Oh, and then they eventually told us all to go away. Not sure if that was an AOL decision or if Tymnet was folding, or what.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: AOL memories

"Well do I remember AOL. We had it back in the '90s. Used a 2400 bps modem to connect, and everything took FOREVER. My parents finally got fed up and bought a 28.8 kbps modem - and got no increase in speed. We rapidly switched to a local ISP, which was WAY faster."

Don't be silly. Things got very fast when I traded in my fast (300 bps) modem for a 1200 bps hot rod.

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Happy

Re: AOL memories

My first was a 600bps modem I knicked out of skip from a warehouse that was closing down, sometime around 1989. The modem had big rubber acoustic couplers and my Dad had to "borrow" a suitable phone from work that would fit the coupler pads! Then this thing called the "Internet" appeared around 1991, my mate at Uni said it was the best thing ever and...it was utter crap! Lots of boring pages through this thing called a browser, tons of very boring text only pages and you needed Windows. No pirated software, no message boards worth bothering with and I went back to BBSs for a anther couple of years as you could use BBS with software that ran on DOS without needing a whopping 4MB of memory to run Windows.

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