In-Depth

Katie Barred the Door

Why not just anyone should change a naming convention.

I’d earned my MCSE in 1999 as a way to get my foot in the door with employers. This was my second job in IT, and I was working on a hardware refresh project for a major oil company in Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. We were replacing 2,000 Windows 95 desktops with brand-new Windows 2000 Professional workstations. We were three months into a six-month project, and I was trying hard to impress my supervisors in an attempt to land a permanent job.

My first time out as Lead Installer, I had four installers working for me. Prudhoe Bay is one of the largest industrial complexes in North America, so we broke the job down into sites containing between 12 and 100 computers. This one should have been easy; there were only 15 computers to replace and five of us to do it. But when we arrived, my point of contact, whom I’ll refer to as Katie, literally barred the door and refused to let us in.

This group of users was the administrative support team for NorthStar Island, the newest and brightest development on the North Slope. The island sits about eight miles north of the northernmost coastline in the U.S. and is accessible only by ice road in the winter, boat in the summer or helicopter during freeze-up and breakup. It seemed that sometime the night before, every user on the island suddenly ceased to be able to log onto the network. Katie was unwilling to allow us to touch their computers until the problem with the users on the island was resolved.

It was Saturday morning and my boss had returned to Anchorage the day before, so there was no one for me to call. I had to figure this one out on my own. I asked Katie to make a call to the island and let me speak to one of the users. She let me in to use the phone, while my guys cooled their heels in the hallway. I ended up on the phone with someone who knew everything about drilling for oil and almost nothing about computers.

I asked him what error message he received when trying to log on. He said the computer was saying he couldn’t log onto the domain and that his password was wrong. He told me that every user on the island received the same error message, no matter which computer they tried to use. I didn’t have an administrative account that allowed me to look at the user accounts, but it seemed strange that 20 users would lose their ability to log on all at once.

I asked him to try logging in again and this time to read me the entire text of the error message from the screen. The message was: “The system cannot log you on to this domain because the system’s computer account in its primary domain is missing or the password on that account is incorrect.” Aha, I thought. This is a problem with the computer accounts, not the user accounts. I did have a user account and password with permission to add machines to the domain. From memory, I walked the user through the steps to remove the computer from the domain and join a workgroup, reboot, and then add it back to the domain. Eureka! The user was able to log in. I then had him repeat the procedure for every machine on the island. Suddenly, Katie was smiling, and I was able to get my crew to work after a tense 90 minutes.

It wasn’t until Monday morning that I discovered why the problem had occurred. It seems that the NT administrators in Anchorage knew that the company would soon be moving from Windows NT in a multiple-master domain model to Windows 2000 and Active Directory. As a consequence, the Anchorage and North Slope domains would soon go away, replaced by a single domain model. Based on this knowledge, they decided that the current naming convention that used different prefixes for Anchorage and the North Slope could be changed. When imaging the first batch of computers, all 300 were named with the Anchorage prefix. Since NorthStar was a high-priority project, one of their engineers came by and picked up their computers from this first batch and flew them out to the island.

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When the NT administrators on the North Slope got wind of the change, they threw a fit. When the flak cleared, they won the argument for keeping the existing naming convention. As a result, our team ended up re-imaging the entire first batch of machines to change the computer names.

Several weeks later on a Friday evening, a North Slope NT administrator noticed that there were several machines on his domain whose names began with the wrong prefix. So, without notifying anyone on our team, he deleted the machine accounts from the domain and went home for the day, setting the stage for my troubles the following morning.

This experience taught me that when asking users about error messages, make them read the message verbatim from the screen. They tend to summarize what they understand about the error message and leave out the parts they don’t comprehend. The other thing I learned is that in a large enterprise, with many administrators in many different geographical locations, communication is vital. People who take pride in their work want to exercise control over the environment and may resent changes being made without their input. Seek out the names and phone numbers of people who do jobs similar to your own in the company and make contact with them. Share information you think they might be interested in and you may just find them doing the same for you.

Postscript: I got the job!

About the Author

Michael Beardsley, MCSE, A+, changed careers and entered the computer field at age 43. He's married with two children: a daughter, 7 and a son, 5

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