Crashing Amazon

When I was a junior in college, I took a class in computing. In those days, that meant working on a dumb terminal in a roomful of dumb terminals attached to a mainframe that was kept somewhere safe and secure from undergrads.

At one point I wrote a program to simulate running a dishroom, a real-world job that I had at the time. This is not one of those Great Moments in Programming. It was just the assignment I had to do at the end of the semester.

After writing my program, I had to test it. Every time I tried, the mainframe gave me an error message that said something like "You need more memory than I, the mainframe computer, am willing to give you." Even after I modified the program, the message persisted. I was not amused.

Even as a young(er) man, I tended to think that rules were more like guidelines, so I started poking around the system looking for ways to increase the memory allocated to my account. I found something that looked promising and set my maximum memory to "whatever the heck I want". Back to testing.

I started to run the program and VOILA!!! Success. The program churned along nicely, generating outputs and reports and whiz-bang dot-matrix type graphics for a couple of minutes. And then the mainframe retaliated.

First, the program crashed. When I tried to restart it, a mess of code started to stream down the screen, Matrix-style, but pre-Matrix. Very pre-Matrix. The Wachowski Brothers owe me big.

After a minute, the other people working around me started saying things like "Whoa!" and "What the heck is this?". I looked over at the guy next to me and saw that his screen was spewing code, too. A second look confirmed that some of the spewing code were lines from my program.

It was late and there wasn't anyone around to call or ask to intervene. I suggested that maybe I had done something to crash the mainframe. People started to gather around my terminal and look at the mess running down my screen. Everyone's code seemed to be on display in some random command line generator.

Finally, one really scary looking computer whiz came over and looked at the mess. Then he looked at me. Then he looked back at the mess and asked, "Have you tried Control-O?" I said no, I hadn't tried Control-O. I mean, what the heck was Control-O?

"You should try it," he said. "It's really powerful." Then, he walked away.

So I took inventory of the folks around me. All agreed that we didn't have a better plan. Control-O it was. I pressed the keys.

The spewing stopped, and in a couple of minutes we were all returned to our log-in screens. Whatever work we hadn't saved was lost, but people didn't mind so much. In those days, code was written out (by hand in my case), so it was mostly a bit of typing. And everyone was impressed by my deft use of Control-O.

So… I wanted to order an album yesterday, around the time that the web site for Amazon crashed. It was down hard for about an hour. For most of that time I sat around wondering if someone in Seattle had just asked for more memory.

About Brian O'Leary

Founder and principal of Magellan Media Consulting, Brian O’Leary helps enterprises with media and publishing components capitalize on the power of content. A veteran of more than 30 years in the publishing industry and a prolific content producer himself, Brian leverages the breadth and depth of his experience to deliver innovative content solutions.

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