Murphy’s Law.

In 2002 we bought a company in the Bay Area… they were a Mac-only ISP, that (typical of the days) did a little bit of everything… hosting, colo, access, development, dial-up, DSL, T1s, car washes, prostitution… *anything* to make a buck.

Peter Lalor (blog roll) ran this company. One of his friends owned an office building in one of those canyons north and west of San Rafael. Peter & friend came up with a money-making scheme for said office building:

1. Pull T1 line to building.
2. Wire office suites with 2-pair from “server closet”, kludge up DSL service
3. Profit!

The building was so far off beaten path that margins were sky high. Tenants had NO choice but DSL from Peter for BIG$. (or Dial-up… yuck)
This is by far, the most profitable section of the Peter’s portfolio of “everything +kitchensink” businesses.

Peter’s business went near-death in the Great Collapsing NorthPoint DSL Disaster of 2001. Peter bails. Peter sells us the ISP part, and the dev biz goes to another company.

We really only want the hosting/colo, but promise to keep as much else as possible running. Over the months/years we scale back as clients move to other providers for access, dial-up, etc. I happily assist clients in these migrations as we are not really in the Internet Access business anymore. We pulled out of that right about the time when DSL was emerging. We look like geniuses in hindsight, but really we didn’t have the capital to acquire DSL infrastructure. We stopped offering Dial-up & T1 in 1997, and had frozen our ISDN business in 1999. We had decided to be JUST a hosting/colo operation by 2000. We knew how to do it, so we managed Peter’s customers’ Internet access for as long as it made sense, and they continued to pay for it.

This particular office building however is still in the shadow of DSL from Pacbell/SBC/ILEC-dujour. We keep making money on This Building. Our CEO won’ let me migrate This Building to a $newprovider. I understand… my role is Operational, not Financial. So, every time I am in the area I visit and check on equipment, stay in touch with clients, etc. Shortly after the acquisition, we replace the PILE of netopia routers in their “server closet” with a ($new +15grand!) Copper Mountain CE150 DSLAM that Peter had ebayed, but could not figure out how to deploy. Things are (mostly) good.

One year later….

Peter’s Friend sells the property.

Copper Mountain dies a deservedly miserable death.

Two years later…

Competing ISP puts wireless tower on ridge above canyon. Sends sales guy door to door in canyon offering wireless access at a fraction of the prices we charge. We lose 60% of our business in the space of two weeks. Our sales guy that managed the remaining accounts slashed prices to meet competitor’s. We go from making Big$ to barely breaking even. I shop for cheaper T1, get it down by 25%, we stay slightly above water.

Three years later….

Office moves, attrition, entropy… we’re close to break even.
I’m mentally prepared for the tipping point when we’ll make the call to shut it down.

Four years later….

NoCal has bad weather, huge power spike/outage hits This Building over this past weekend. DSLAM is unresponsive.

Relay status to support staff.

I call T1 provider, they confirm T1 is up. Hrm… I call the property manager and have him go to the “server closet” (which is a wall-mount rack over a sink in a dark, dank, smelly janitor’s closet!) and check the DSLAM. He says “it is fine” … I can’t ping it, I can’t telnet or get SNMP out of it. PM says “lights are on”… have PM powercycle DSLAM. No joy.

Relay status to support staff.

Call the consultant we’ve used locally for help. No answer.
Ask our bookkeeper to provide me with the cost/revenue analysis so I can make a judgement call about whether to just throw in the towel on this business.
Email MGT team that pulling out might be best if we are at or below break even.
Speak to Cust Svc staff to start calling down customers and relay status of situation.

Relay status to support staff.

Appeal to NANOG for remote hands. Get somebody almost instantly, almost walking distance away (!). He goes over, tells me DSLAM power supply is dead (PM was seeing LINK light on DSLAM NIC…sigh.)

Relay status to support staff

Scramble for replacement power supply for CMCE150. Rare as tits on a Bull. Find two whole units on eBay, but sellers don’t respond to email. Search takes hours. Find some on “” for $500 each, but they are closed for day (EST). Manage to find a used hardware reseller in PST that has three! They want $750 each. Talk them down to $400 based on east coast option. Buy two, pay for overnight shipping to San Rafael.
(Murphy’s Law of Replacement Hardware: Buy one, it will fail. Buy two, first will never fail.)

Relay status to support & CS staff.
Call PM on-site tell him to expect FedEx, and supply tracking #.

Go to sleep happy.

Wake up to email from reseller: “We missed FedEx shipping deadline.”


Look at fax receipt and find out reseller is in Sacramento. (Actually, in a bit of irony, Roseville CA, location of company that built our current Seattle datacenter before going Tango Uniform in 2001.) While in shower consider flying to Bay Area, renting car, doing it myself. Run in-head cost/benefit and reject. Find way of getting stuff from Sacramento to San Rafael. Arrange courier, but as yet have not contacted reseller (they open at 9am PST).

Relay status to support & CS staff.

At least one client already gone.(A lawyer. There are NO worse clients than Doctors & Lawyers. grumble.)

Finally raise reseller at 9:50 (WTF!?) and tell them courier is coming. Please provide ship-from address. They email me the address… which is in SAN FRANCISCO! Arrgh!!??

Had I KNOWN that from the start I would/could have arranged pickup the PREVIOUS DAY! Grrrr.

Cancel Sacramento courier. Find courier in SF, arrange pickup, tell reseller to expect pickup within an hour.

Relay status to support & CS staff.

Call PM on-site tell him to expect delivery by noon.

Have meeting (& lunch) with IT staff of a big client. While en-route to post-meeting lunch, check office VM from cell… message from SF courier: “Ship-from site says FedEx already picked up package”(!) Manage to keep poker face on in front of important client, but consider murdering waitress with a fork to relieve near-explosive stress. Quietly relay to Sales VP situation… his face not so pokerish… more puckerish.

Get call during lunch from my #2 guy: “getting calls from The Building… status?” Me: “FedEx beat courier to package… down until tomorrow.” (while maintaining poker face for important client at nice eatery.) Muttering on other end of phone.

Important client leaves, and I talk with Sales VP on way back to office: “We’ll need to give these clients at least two free months to have any hope of keeping them.” He agrees.

Get back to office, find uber-apologetic emails from reseller. Play phone tag with them (I suspect they are using caller-ID to avoid me… letting all calls from WA area codes go to VM)

Relay status to support & CS staff.
Relay status to PM on-site.

Consider options for ritual suicide.

Bookkeeper FINALLY gets me cost/revenue numbers. With the Lawyer gone, we are now officially under water on cost/revenue.


Murphy’s Law: Whatever CAN go wrong, WILL go wrong.

Update: Wednesday, March 15, 2006

I call the property manager at The Building, and let him know that FedEx should be there at some point in the morning with the power supplies.

Relay status to support & CS staff.

At about 11 am I get a call from the property manager at The Building who tells me the FedEx guy just left, but did not deliver anything(!). Ahhh! I check the tracking on their website and it says “On Truck for Delivery 8:03 AM San Rafael”, which I relay to the PM. I hang up, start calling FedEx, and working my way through their Cust Svc system… making little or no headway.
Pull out some more hair… shave several more hours off my life…

At around 1 pm, the PM calls me. Says the boxes just arrived! We go through the replacement procedure, and the DSLAM powers up just fine. I am able to ping it from here, and my SNMP management console starts registering traffic… breathe big sigh of relief.

Relay status to support & CS staff.

All that remains now is:

1. taking a pound of flesh from the reseller for botching the delivery on more than one level. Trying to recover some of my wasted courier and shipping costs.

2. Planning for the eventual decommission of this site, as we are losing money on it now. We’ll probably give the clients there 90 days to source a new access provider. Then we’ll finally be out of the access business entirely.

One thought on “Murphy’s Law.”

  1. No wonder you miss playing hockey, Chuck..sheesh!
    And remember, Chuck…Murphy was an *optimist.*…:)

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