Tales from the Server Room - Panic on the Streets of London

What do you do when your kickstart doesn't kick? Find out what Kyle does in this first episode of Tales from the Server Room.

I've always thought it's better to learn from someone else's mistakes than from my own. In this column, Kyle Rankin or Bill Childers will tell a story from their years as systems administrators while the other will chime in from time to time. It's a win-win: you get to learn from our experiences, and we get to make snide comments to each other. Kyle tells the first story in this series.

I was pretty excited about my first trip to the London data center. I had been to London before on vacation, but this was the first time I would visit our colocation facility on business. What's more, it was the first remote data-center trip I was to take by myself. Because I still was relatively new to the company and the junior-most sysadmin at the time, this was the perfect opportunity to prove that I knew what I was doing and could be trusted for future trips.

The Best Laid Plans of a Sysadmin

The maintenance was relatively straightforward. A few machines needed a fresh Linux install, plus I would troubleshoot an unresponsive server, audit our serial console connections, and do a few other odds and ends. We estimated it was a two-day job, but just in case, we added an extra provisional day.

[Bill: If I remember right, I had to fight to get that extra day tacked onto the trip for you. We'd learned from past experience that nothing at that place seemed easy at face value.]

Even with an extra day, I wanted this trip to go smoothly, so I came up with a comprehensive plan. Each task was ordered by its priority along with detailed lists of the various commands and procedures I would use to accomplish each task. I even set up an itemized checklist of everything I needed to take with me.

[Bill: I remember thinking that you were taking it way too seriously—after all, it was just a kickstart of a few new machines. What could possibly go wrong? In hindsight, I'm glad you made all those lists.]

The first day I arrived at the data center, I knew exactly what I needed to do. Once I got my badge and was escorted through multiple levels of security to our colocation cages, I would kickstart each of the servers on my list one by one and perform all the manual configuration steps they needed. If I had time, I could finish the rest of the maintenance; otherwise, I'd leave any other tasks for the next day.

Now, it's worth noting that at this time we didn't have a sophisticated kickstart system in place nor did we have advanced lights-out management—just a serial console and a remotely controlled power system. Although our data center did have a kickstart server with a package repository, we still had to connect each server to a monitor and keyboard, boot from an install CD and manually type in the URL to the kickstart file.

[Bill: I think this experience is what started us down the path of a lights-out management solution. I remember pitching it to the executives as “administering from the Bahamas”, and relaying this story to them was one of the key reasons that pitch was successful.]

Kicking Servers Like Charlie Brown Kicks Footballs

After I had connected everything to the first server, I inserted the CD, booted the system and typed in my kickstart URL according to my detailed plans. Immediately I saw the kernel load, and the kickstart process was under way. Wow, if everything keeps going this way, I might even get this done early, I thought. Before I could start making plans for my extra days in London though, I saw the kickstart red screen of death. The kickstart logs showed that for some reason, it wasn't able to retrieve some of the files it needed from the kickstart server.

Great, now I needed to troubleshoot a broken kickstart server. Luckily, I had brought my laptop with me, and the troubleshooting was straightforward. I connected my laptop to the network, eventually got a DHCP lease, pointed the browser to the kickstart server, and sure enough, I was able to see my kickstart configuration files and browse through my package repository with no problems.

I wasn't exactly sure what was wrong, but I chalked it up to a momentary blip and decided to try again. This time, the kickstart failed, but at a different point in the install. I tried a third time, and it failed at the original point in the install. I repeated the kickstart process multiple times, trying to see some sort of pattern, but all I saw was the kickstart fail at a few different times.

The most maddening thing about this problem was the inconsistency. What's worse, even though I had more days to work on this, the kickstart of this first server was the most important task to get done immediately. In a few hours, I would have a team of people waiting on the server so they could set it up as a database system.


Kyle Rankin is Chief Security Officer at Purism, a company focused on computers that respect your privacy, security, and freedom. He is the author of many books including Linux Hardening in Hostile Networks, DevOps Troubleshooting and The Official Ubuntu


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When will you publish the next story?

ITapprentice's picture

Great story, I'm sure you have many more projects to talk about. I love the technical aspect as well, don't be afraid to get deeper in tech detail as an aspiring jr sysadmin i'd love to learn from others experience. Thanks for sharing can't wait for more.