Blinking Lights

I’m sure that if you’re more than twenty, you’ve seen one of those really bad Sci-Fi movies with computers with lights everywhere. As the computer worked, computing at incredible speeds of course, the lights would flash like crazy, often accompanied by weird beeps and bops. When the computer completed its computation, like some kind of bizarre oven, the computer would make a loud ding! The answer would then be printed on a teletype with a characteristic loud buzzing noise.

The IBM 370

The IBM 370 (from Simon Fraser University Network Services. Click on image to follow original link.)

I must have some nostalgia of that clunky, flashy, visual feedback of computation. Of the time of green cathode ray tubes and loud dot-matrix printers, maybe, because I am much too young to have known computers like the IBM 370. Indeed, when I first started to program, the computer, a TI 99/4a, used a color t.v. as a terminal. But just actually displaying something on screen took a lot of time, you could almost see the characters appear one by one, and you could very easily tell refresh order just by paying attention. You had a visual feedback of the amount of work being performed by the computer.

Now, when I look at my desktop computer, I see instant refresh. Aided by a Nvidia chipset, Compiz Fusion animates my desktop without any visible effort. It is only when I run computation-intensive simulations (and various number-crunchings) that I see the CPU meter rise, but the computer remains responsive. You still have to wait for the results of the simulation, but computation becomes somehow invisible.

The same phenomena occurs when you walk in a room stacked with servers. Here also, computing occurs literally thousands of times faster than in the olden times, yet you cannot tell at a glance whether they are idle or computing. What hits you first is all this noise and heat, because no server is configured to use Speed Step (assuming they’re even capable of sophisticated power management). There are a number of blinking lights, they may be monitoring network activity, or many just blink regularly on an off to indicate that the blade is working properly—the only thing that indicates more or less properly its level of business is the network switch. But if you want to know what’s going on in your servers, visually inspecting the racks is not enough. You must log onto a workstation (preferably outside the server room for the sake of your ears) and use various tools to report activity. Those tools are, unfortunately, often clunky and rarely visually interesting.

Maybe it would be interesting to get all those blinking lights back after all. You know, to have some kind of visually informative speed meter, that would indicate the principal health parameters for the server blade: network activity, CPU usage, ram/swap usage, internal temperature, etc. I am sure there’s a way to make this tastefully, even if it’s not always the case of PC mods.

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If you have good Linux-based server/workstations monitoring software to suggest, I’m all ears.

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