You Don't Need Fourpence to Make the Internet Disappear

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So I just found out this week why Automobile Association patrolmen didn't need to carry four one-penny coins around at all times. According to an item on the program "QI", in the early days of Britain's acquisition of a nuclear attack capability they worried how they would contact the Prime Minister when he was out of the office, and they needed someone to push the big red button.

The plan, it seems, was for the staff at the Nuclear Attack Headquarters to phone the AA, who would send a radio message to the patrolman that shadowed ministerial convoys at all times - on his motorcycle and sidecar, if the photos they showed were accurate. He would stop the convoy and tell the Prime Minister. They would then drive to the nearest phone box and call HQ to say "go for it" (or whatever the password of the day was).

The AA bosses decided that patrolmen should always carry coins for the phone in case nobody in the Prime Minister's convoy had the correct change. However, the Home Office told the AA that they needn't bother because the Prime Minister could just phone the operator and ask to reverse the charges. Mind you, as they pointed out on QI, it's possible that the operator may be less than convinced when someone phoned and said "Hello, I'm the Prime Minister, please put me through to the Nuclear Attack Bunker and ask them to accept the charges."

Of course, this prompts some obvious questions, such as why didn't they just put a radio in the Prime Minister's car? And were cars so unreliable at that period in history that they needed to have a repair man following them all the time? But as it was Stephen Fry telling the story I suppose it must be true.

What it does reveal is how quickly technology has changed our whole perception of communication. It's only when you stop and think what it was like, even just twenty years ago, trying to stay in contact with people. For example, I was a travelling salesman in those days and my biggest weekly expense was buying pre-paid phone cards for the new-fangled "cards-only" phone boxes that were appearing all over the country. And maps for each town and city so that I could actually find where I was supposed to be going, plus postage stamps for sending in orders because the cost of calls was far too expensive to spend time reading them out over the phone.

Some years later, when I talked to the young lady who took over my job, she was completely amazed that anyone could survive traveling without a mobile phone and sat-nav; never mind the other fripperies that are standard in cars now such as cruise control and air-conditioning. Of course, there are downsides such as being continually tracked through GPS, and always being contactable on the phone - I guess the spirit we had of a sales rep's life being "a great adventure" has been fatally compromised by technology.

However, what prompted all this unrelated reminiscence was working on our latest guide Moving Applications to the Cloud where we discuss testing Windows Azure applications that will be deployed to Virtual Machines. It was only after many attempts to rationalize deployment and test cycles based around scripts and multiple Windows Azure subscriptions that our own test team pointed out how, in actual fact, the process is no different from when you are doing everything on-premises.

The point is that today's communication and connectivity technologies can make the Internet disappear. All of a sudden my schematics containing clouds and dotted lines that represent the on-premises/cloud boundary are deemed to be unrealistic. We need to pretend that the Internet (and, for that matter, Windows Azure) doesn't actually exist at all. Instead, we just plug all the machines into a Virtual Network and they look like they are in the datacenter next door.

So when the test team starts poking around trying to break the app, or when the admin people deign to promote it to the live server, the servers all look exactly the same as before. The scripts, utilities, tools, and commands are no different, and the view though Remote Desktop is indistinguishable from that with the servers on-premises. To repeat the oft-used mantra: "It just works".

And the network admin guys could even get their own back after all the unfavorable comments they suffer at the hands of developers and testers. Toss all the test and production servers into Windows Azure, connect them up with a Virtual network, and empty your datacenter. Then ask devs and testers to "pop down to the server room and reboot the test server", and see what excuse they come up with for not being able to find it.

A bit like when, as a young and naïve young lad working in a factory, the guy who came to mend one of the machines sent me to the stores to get a long external stand. I stood outside in the rain for an hour waiting for the man on the stores counter to find one...

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You Don't Need Fourpence to Make the Internet Disappear