The Dreaded Computer Upgrade

Reflections

Illustration: Jonathan Carlson

Every techie’s heart beats a little more quickly at the thought of a new electronic gizmo. In the case of a computer, however, this anticipation is muted by several dark thoughts.

First, the new computer isn’t really going to do anything different than the beloved old one, just the same things a little faster. And that modest increase in speed is going to come at an enormous cost in worry—and the work of switching over to the new machine. Fortunately, we don’t replace computers very often these days. Processor speeds have plateaued. We’ve improved performance through multiple processing cores, but so far we haven’t done much to use them. And how many cores do you need to run a word processor or a Web browser anyway?

This present hiatus is a grave problem for the industry, and by implication, for all us electrical engineers. Nevertheless, it isn’t my concern today; eventually, an old computer must be replaced, if for no other reason than that the only operating systems it can run are no longer supported. What I want to talk about is that dreaded cutover. Just the thought of having to transfer everything from the old machine takes the shine off my glittering new one.

So I sit at my old computer, while over in the corner is a half-opened box. My whole life—hundreds of apps holding together more than a terabyte of data—is in this familiar old machine. I don’t even know what’s in there anymore. I’m trying to save everything to external drives and DVDs, but even if I succeed, all the applications will have to be reinstalled. I may not be able to find the original disks, and they may not work with the new operating system. What a nightmare!

With what I hope is all my data in hand, I crawl into the dark confined space behind my computer, where lies a rat’s nest of dusty, tangled wires coming from unknown places and leading to other unknown places. This is it—the point of no return. I start to unplug everything.

Now I get to my main worry. This is an irrational worry—or maybe too rational, being a worry that I think only a techie would have. Or perhaps I’m the only one in the world who thinks this way, but I’m worried that the new machine won’t work. I have visions of having to box the thing back up and take it back to the store, where they’ll look at me like I’m a klutz who doesn’t know how to plug in a computer. And I’ve already committed to the new lemon. The prospect of going back to the old machine is now unbearable.

I can’t help but think about all the things that have to function perfectly for this new computer to work. The processor has hundreds of millions of transistors—even more in the memory. And all those interconnections onboard the chips! The backplane has hundreds of tiny mechanical connections. The hard drive has a head that floats less than a micrometer above a spinning disk, which in turn has magnetic domains of similar minute size. There are literally billions of single points of possible failure. There is no way that this new computer will work. I’m doomed.

Amid such thoughts, my finger hesitates on the power button. There is already a little light glowing inside the new machine. At least it knows it’s connected to power. Big deal.

I hold my breath and push the button. I hear the roar of a fan. That’s a start. Nothing yet on the screen. Suddenly, there is life! I see the manufacturer’s logo on the screen! I’m still scared, but probably irrationally so. Although I’m only looking at an output from the motherboard’s basic input/output system, for this logo to appear on the monitor, almost everything in the computer has to work. From a hardware standpoint, only the hard drive has yet to prove itself.

Now the screen goes blank. This is the most frightening time of all. Is it going to come back to life, or is this the end? The blankness lasts forever—maybe longer. But after an eternity I see the welcome screen from the operating system. I collapse in relief. All I have to do now is to reâ¿¿create my entire computing environment. This will be arduous, but at least I will be in control.

I don’t know how many more times I can do this.

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