Logitech Quickcam Pro 4000

Every year, Initrode Global was faced with further and further budget shortages in their IT department. This wasn’t because the company was doing poorly—on the contrary, the company overall was doing quite well, hitting record sales every quarter. The only way to spin that into a smaller budget was to dream bigger. Thus, every quarter, the budget demanded greater and greater increases in sales, and the exceptional growth was measured against the desired phenomenal growth and found wanting.

IT, being a cost center, was always hit by budget cuts the hardest. What did they need money for? The lights were still on, the mainframes still churning; any additional funds would only encourage them to take wild risks and break things.

One of the things people were worried about breaking were the thin clients. These had been purchased some years ago from Smyrt, who had been acquired the previous year by Hell Computers. There would be no tech support or patching, not from Hell. The IT department was on their own to ensure the clients kept running.

Unfortunately, the things seemed to have a will of their own—and that will did not include remaining up for weeks on end. Every once in a while, when booting Linux on the thin clients, the Thin Film Transistor screen would turn dark as soon as the X server started. They would remain dark after that; however, when the helpdesk SSH’d into the system, the screen would of course render perfectly on their end. So there was nothing to do to troubleshoot except lug a thin client to their work area and test workarounds from there.

The worst part of this kind of troubleshooting is when the problem is an intermittent one. The only way they could think to reproduce the problem was to spend hours in front of the client, turning it off and back on again. In the face of budget cuts, the already understaffed desk had no manpower to do something so trivial and dull.

Tedium is the mother of invention. Many of the most ingenious pieces of automation were put in place when an enterprising programmer was faced with performing a mind-numbing task over and over for the foreseeable future. Such is the case in this instance. Lacking the support staff to power cycle the machine over and over, the staff instead built a robot.

A webcam was found in the back room, dusty and abandoned, the last vestige of a proposed work-from-home solution that never quite came to fruition years before. A sticker of transparent rubber someone found in their desk was placed over the metal rim of the camera so it wouldn’t leave any scratches on the glass of the TFT screen. The webcam was placed up close against one strategically chosen corner of the screen, and attached to a Raspberry Pi someone brought from home.

The Pi was programmed to run a bash script, which in turn called a CLI image-grabbing tool and then applied some ImageMagick filters to determine the brightness value of the patch of screen it could see. This brightness value was compared against a known list of brightnesses to determine which state the machine was in: the boot menu, the Linux kernel messages scrolling past, the colorful login screen, or the solid black screen representing the problem. When the Pi detected a login screen, it would run a scripted reboot on the thin client using SSH and a keypair. If, instead, the screen remained dark for a long period of time, it would send an IM through the company messaging solution to alert the staff that they could begin their testing, then exit.

We’ve seen machines with the ability to manipulate physical servers. Now, we have machines seeing and evaluating the world in front of them. How long before we reach peak Skynet potential here at TDWTF? And what would the robot revolution look like, with founding members such as these?

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