It's the 1980s, and this big bank is consolidating its data centers spread across the U.S., according to an IT pilot fish working there.
"They were running data centers in Maine, New York and Washington state," fish says. "They were going to eliminate the Maine mainframe, keeping only peripheral equipment like printers and check sorters there.
"Because the New York mainframe was running at almost maximum capacity, they decided to run the check sorter through the Washington mainframe. They hired a large third-party company to make the necessary connections."
There aren't any high-speed telecom lines in the Maine location, so to send the data across the 3,000 miles between Maine and Washington, the plan is to use a geostationary satellite to connect the two locations.
The contractor installs the communications software at each location and tests the connections, and everything looks good.
Then the two data centers do a trial run with data going between the Maine check sorter and the Washington mainframe -- and it's a 100 percent failure. Every check that runs through sorter ends up in the reject slot.
The contractor checks over its connections, and the bank's IT team checks its equipment. Signals are being sent and received, but the process just isn't working.
After a month of trial-and-error checking, testing and failing, a programmer who isn't involved in the project asks a question: What's the maximum time the sorter allows after a check is read for the mainframe to tell it what slot to put it in?
The answer: about one-quarter of a second.
The programmer then points out that the distance from the data centers to the satellite is roughly 26,000 miles. That means the data has to travel more than 100,000 miles to get from Maine to the satellite to Washington to the satellite to Maine again -- and that's leaving out any data processing time.
"At the speed of light -- about 186,000 miles per second -- it would take about half a second for the round trip," says fish.
"The check would always be rejected because the sorter didn't know where to put it in time. The speed of light just wasn't fast enough!"
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