The Dreaded Cutover

Published in IEEE Spectrum Magazine, Mar 2009

There comes a time when you find it necessary or attractive to replace your aging computer.  At such a time every techie’s heart beats a little more quickly at the thought of having a new electronic gizmo.  In the case of a computer, however, this anticipation is muted by several dark thoughts.  First, this new gadget isn’t really going to do anything different than the beloved old one; it’s just going to do those same things a little faster.  Moreover, that modest increased speed is going to come at the cost of an enormous amount of work and worry in implementing the dreaded cutover to the new machine.

Fortunately, or unfortunately depending on how you look at it, it isn’t very often these days that you need to replace a computer.  Processor speeds have reached a plateau and the only way to more speed is through multiple processing cores, and so far we haven’t figured out how to use a lot of parallel processing cores.  In spite of a relatively recent industry focus on parallel computing, the software isn’t there yet, nor are there many applications that seem to require such power.  After all, how many cores do you need to run word processing?

This present hiatus is a problem for the industry, and by implication for all of us electrical engineers.  Nevertheless, it isn’t the main issue I want to deal with at the moment.  What I want to vent about is that dreaded cutover from the old machine to the new one.  Even forgetting about the modest speed increases available in a new computer, the thought of having to transfer everything from the old machine is daunting enough to quell any spontaneous purchase of a glittering new machine.

So I sit at my old machine working away at whatever, and over in the corner of my room is the unopened box containing my new computer.  I’m scared to start the cutover.  My whole life is in this familiar old machine -- hundreds of apps tangled with more than a terabyte of data.  I don’t even know what’s in there anymore.  I’m trying to save everything to external drives and DVDs, but even if I succeed, all the applications will have to be reinstalled.  I may not be able to find the original installation disks, and they may not work with the new operating system.  What a nightmare!

I reach the point of no return, and crawl in the dark confined space behind my computer where lies a rat’s nest of tangled wires coming from unknown places and leading to other unknown places.  This is it.  I start to unplug everything.

Now I get to my main worry.  This is an irrational worry -- or maybe too rational.  It’s a worry that I think only a techie would have.  Or perhaps I’m the only one in the world that has such a worry.  I’m really worried that the new machine won’t work.  I have visions of having to box the thing back up and take it back to the store, where they look at me like I’m a klutz that doesn’t know how to plug in a computer, or they tell me I have to deal with the manufacturer.  And I’ve already committed irretrievably to this new lemon.

I can’t help but think about all the electronics that has to function perfectly for this new computer to work.  The processor has almost a billion transistors, and there are even more in the memory.  There are about the same number of interconnections onboard the chips.  The backplane has hundreds of tiny mechanical connections.  The hard drive has a head that floats microns above a spinning disk, which in turn has magnetic domains of nanometer size.  There are literally billions of single points of possible failure.  There is no way that this new computer will work.  I’m doomed.

Amid such thoughts I complete the connections and reach the moment of truth.  My finger hesitates on the power button.  I’m scared to push it.  I’m slightly gratified to see that there is already a little light glowing inside the new machine.  At least it knows it’s connected to power.  Big deal.

I hold my breath and push the button.  I hear the roar of a fan.  That’s a start.  Nothing yet on the screen.  Suddenly there is life!  I see the manufacturer’s logo on the screen!  I’m still scared, but probably irrationally so.  Though I’m only looking at an output from the BIOS, almost everything in the computer has to work to see this logo on the monitor.  From a hardware sense, only the hard drive hasn’t yet proven itself.

Now the screen goes blank.  This is a frightening time.  Is it going to come back to life, or is this the end?  The blankness lasts forever.  Maybe longer.  But after an eternity I see the welcome screen from the operating system.  I collapse in relief.

All I have to do now is to recreate my entire computing environment.  This will be arduous, but at least I will be in control

I don’t know if this was worth it.

Robert Lucky