Network admin eats humble pie

An IT expert tries out an idea for configuring the company's file server, but instead confronts technical reality

This story took place in 1994. After being the de facto network administrator in my previous job, I now had the official title with a new job.

I was taking care of a small prepress group, which had a file server running Novell NetWare 3.11. There were about 20 users; about two-thirds used Macintoshes running System 7, and the rest used PCs running DOS/Windows 3.1. I had never touched a Mac before, so supporting them was new to me.

[ The tech inferno is not buried deep within the earth -- it's just down the hall. Do the nine circles of IT hell sound familiar? | Follow Off the Record on Twitter for tech's war stories, career takes, and off-the-wall news. ]

The file server had 5GB of space on it, and it was packed full. My predecessor had ordered a replacement file server, one with 10GB of storage -- laughable today, but quite respectable at the time. I couldn't wait to set it up and get it running.

Off the Record submissions

My predecessor had set the old server up with five 1GB volumes, each corresponding to the type of project the group was working on. This meant the Mac users had to mount five volumes each time they logged in, and the PC users were mapped to five or more drive letters. Also, they were constantly having to move data around, as the volumes were always full.

I sat down with the principles and proposed a different setup: The data would be in one large volume, with a top-level directory for each of the five groups. That way, they would only have to mount one volume or map one drive letter, and they wouldn't have any artificial limits on size for the different project types.

They liked the idea, so off I went, congratulating myself on being so much smarter than my predecessor.

I got the server configured and over a weekend copied the data from the old server to the new server. I logged in from both Windows and Macintosh machines and as various users to make sure permissions were set correctly and everything looked good.

I was in early on Monday morning, excitedly waiting for feedback from the users. Everyone seemed to like the new layout, and I was as happy as could be.

After about half an hour, I got a call from one of the Mac users -- he couldn't save his work on the server. Hmm, I must have missed a permission assignment. I started checking permissions on the directory, and while I was doing that another Mac user called with the same complaint. Perhaps they were in the same group? I kept looking for an error in permissions.

Soon, it became apparent: No Mac user could save to the server. If they logged in from a Windows computer they could, but not from a Mac. What was going on?

The answer was found in a readme file on a floppy disk that accompanied the Novell documentation. It turns out that the Macintosh System 7 client couldn't write to any volume larger than 2GB. It could mount the volume and read from it, but not write to it. Bummer!

Fortunately, the old server was still there. I had everyone log off and swapped the servers. For the remainder of the day, I repartitioned the new server with five 2GB volumes, then spent the evening copying data.

The next day, we tried the new server again -- and this time, it worked just fine. Incidentally, we battled this problem until we got a server with Windows NT 3.5. Windows NT's Services for Macintosh would present volumes to the Mac clients as 2GB, even though they were much bigger, and this allowed the Macs to write to them.

I learned several lessons from this experience. Probably the most important was that if someone has set things up a certain way before, don't assume it's because they aren't as smart as you are. Rather, look to see if there is a very good reason for what they did! That lesson, coupled with a good dose of humility, has helped me greatly ever since.

Do you have a humbling tech story to share? Send it to, and if we publish it, you'll receive a $50 American Express gift cheque.

This story, "Network admin eats humble pie," was originally published at Read more crazy-but-true stories in the anonymous Off the Record blog at For the latest business technology news, follow on Twitter.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.