What a sysadmin can learn from hurricane corner cases

One thing I’ve been focusing on lately is avoiding “It Works Well Enough” Syndrome. Maybe it’s because of the systems design classes I’m taking, or maybe it’s due to my frustration having to fix something that was done months or years ago because it no longer works well enough. Sysadmins are particularly vulnerable to this trap because we’re often not trying to develop software, we’re just trying to solve an immediate problem. Unfortunately, things change over time and underlying assumptions are no longer valid.

A relevant example from the world of tropical weather came up earlier this month. The National Hurricane Center’s 45th discussion for Hurricane Katia contained some very interesting text:

NO 96-HOUR POINT IS BEING GIVEN BECAUSE FORECAST POINTS IN THE
EASTERN HEMISPHERE BREAK A LOT OF SOFTWARE.

It makes sense that software focused on the Atlantic basin would only be concerned with western longitudes, right? It’s exceedingly rare for Atlantic tropical systems to exist east of the Prime Meridian, but apparently it’s not impossible. Whether it’s NHC or commercial software that the forecasters are concerned about is irrelevant. Clearly positive longitudes break things. It makes me wonder what broke when Tropical Storm Zeta continued into January 2006.

Sidebar — It’s not our fault/everyone else does it, too

I don’t mean to demonize sysadmins or lionize developers in the first paragraph. There are plenty of sysadmins out there who want to take the time to develop robust tools to solve their problems. Often, they just don’t have the time because too many other demands have been placed up on them. By the same token, developers who methodically design and implement software still end up with a lot of bugs.

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