Monday, December 20, 2010

Frustration in the computer lab

The last two weeks have been very volatile: some good events have happened, countered by some not so good events. I think that things have evened out now, but all those ups and downs have left me very tired.

I choose to write about the problems we have had in updating computer services in the occupational psychologist's office. Until about a month ago, the setup was as follows:
  1. a venerable NT server was hosting all data files (mainly word files and pdf), as well as hosting the Firebird server and its associated data files
  2. Two "main user" computers for the OP and her secretary, which accessed the files on the server. These computers run XP.
  3. Seven "examinee" computers which run the various computerised exams and store their results on the server; five of these computers run XP and one Windows 98.
  4. One "helper" computer which runs a program every ten minutes during the day; this program reads the results of the computerised exams, inputs them into Firebird data tables and creates Word files containing the developed results of those exams. This computer runs XP.
Due to various problems (probably speed and clutter), it was decided to buy new computers to replace the two 'main user' computers; these naturally came with Windows 7. After playing with these computers for about two weeks, we discovered that they were having problems saving files on the NT server. So we decided to buy another Win7 machine which would replace the NT server: all it had to do was store files and run Firebird.

This is where the fun begins. It took several frustrating hours before I could even get Firebird (v1.5.5) to run on this new computer and to access the database files locally. I was totally unable to set up the other computers to access the databases, so we decided to scrub Win7 and install XP. Again, it took several hours, but eventually on Saturday night, I had Firebird running on this new computer and the Win7 computers could access the databases.

But the remaining XP computers couldn't access those databases! This means that the 'helper' computer was unable to do its work, and I was considering moving its functions to the new server computer so that it would update its databases locally. But in order to do that, it would need Office installed. Even though the Win7 machines were accessing the databases on Saturday night, they often complained of problems: one program would complain about not having access to temporary files being created on the new server, and another program displayed a timing problem. 

All day Sunday, the OP and her secretary were having problems with the databases. The files created by the people who were examined that day could not be entered into the databases because the helper computer couldn't help. So in the evening, we decided to put everything back almost the way it was. 

The only real difference is that the NT server no longer serves as a file repository - the new computer does this. It still hosts the Firebird server and all the database programs run properly. The helper computer now does its job.

All of the above has taken a large amount of time and frustration (see opening paragraph). As I often say, "computers were invented to teach us the value of patience", a deliberately ironic statement seeing as computers do routine tasks so fast that we (supposedly) don't have to wait.

I bought the NT server in 1998 if I remember correctly, and it's still going strong, which says something about the operating system. One day, though, it's going to stop working, and then we'll have to find a way of migrating the databases successfully to another computer.

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