Kernel Hackers: Detectives For A Day

Fake News written by James Baughn on Saturday, December 4, 1999

from the i-wish-all-tech-support-was-like-this dept.

Disaster struck Augusta, Maine yesterday when a mission-critical Linux server crashed and died unexpectedly. The tragic incident prompted Linus Torvalds, Alan Cox, and other kernel hackers to immediately fly to Augusta on charter flights to investigate the cause of the computercide. "I've never heard of a Linux box biting the dust like this," Torvalds said. "I had to find out what caused this freak mishap."

The tragic incident occured in the Computer Science Lab of Maine University yesterday morning. The Linux server, used by students in CS235 ("Non-Microsoft Operating Systems") and CS315 ("Advanced ed & vi", a five-hour course), crashed unexpectedly, and then refused to boot. Word quickly spread throughout campus of the tragedy, and a crowd of onlookers and gawkers quickly assembled near the lab. The CS faculty moved the dead machine to another room, replacing it with a rectangular chalk outline, and they surrounded the disaster area with police tape.

The kernel hackers arrived that afternoon. A goon from the Department of Public Safety, trying unsuccessfully to break up the crowd of gawkers by yelling, "Move along! There's nothing to see here!", obstructed the new arrivals. "Who are you? Where's your ID card? If you're a guest, you need to register," he demanded of Linus Torvalds. However, one of the students recognized the hackers and shouted, "Look! That's Linus Torvalds and Alan Cox!"

Several dozen CS majors surrounded the kernal hackers and demanded autographs from their idols. Even a few CS professors joined in. "Wow, this is what I call tech support! If you have a major problem with Linux, the head gurus themselves will show up personally to provide assistance. Mr. Jesse "Linux-Is-Unsupported" Berst can bite me," Professor Gruhenwald said.

Eventually the commotion died down and Torvalds & Co. were able to sit down in front of the dead machine and perform an autopsy. They opened the case up and were shocked to discover that the Intel CPU had melted. "I've always joked about how you can fry eggs on a Pentium, but this is ridiculous," Stephen Tweedie said.

The rest of the machine appeared to be intact. Cox unplugged the hard drive and installed it in another nearby machine, hoping that the drive's logfiles might provide some clue as to what happened. The final entries in /var/log/messages provided no help. The Kernel Krew grepped the entire drive for clues but came up empty handed.

The group discussed the situation and Alan Cox threw out possible theories. "Maybe it was the Slashdot Effect. Or a Denial Of Service Attack. Or cosmic rays. Or a Big Uncontrolled Singularity. At any rate, we've got ourselves a bona fide mystery. Torvalds responded, "Dammit, Cox, I'm a kernal hacker, not a detective!"

And then, an epiphany hit Linus. He'd solved the mystery. Just like Sherlock Holmes could take a few trivial clues and deduce that the butler did it with a knife in the Conservatory, he had pieced together the mystery. Torvalds suddenly announced, "This was not a random kernel bug or a hardware fault. Somebody committed murder."

"I remember seeing a file called crash.c in a student's home directory," he said to the other stunned hackers and professors. Sure enough, the file, found in /home/student153, was the culprit. It contained this C function:

 void guess_what_this_does() {    char *p = malloc( 1024 * 1024 );    fill_it_with_crap( p );    dump_crap_out_to_disk( p );    guess_what_this_does(); } 

"Hmmm... a recursive function that eats up memory, CPU time, and disk space. Probably every teenage hacker writes one of these just to see what will happen," Cox said. "But, why would something like this crash the machine? We're not dealing with Windows here, Linux should be able to handle this. When the system runs out of memory, malloc returns a null pointer and the program segfaults. No harm done. So what happened?"

Tweedie chimed in, "This recursive program ate all of the CPU time, causing the Pentium to overheat. The darn thing got too hot and melted. We've solved the mystery. student153 committed the computercide."

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