the laughing cloud

We sold out…

I got a surprise a few weeks ago… my manager at Quest called and just said “Hey Sean, your last day is next Friday… (blah blah blah)… do you have any questions?”.  I said “no” and hung up.

I wrote Big Brother – the first web-based Systems and Network monitoring program back in 1996.  I wrote it to make my life as a Sys Admin easier… actually I wrote it because a salesman pissed me off and wanted to charge the company I was consulting for $250K but demanded I spec the entire system out.  And he was mean to his technical guy.  That was it.  I wrote the bones of BB in a weekend.  And I put my face on it… “Big Brother is Watching”.


I also wrote it because I got tired or watching things manually.  Netscape had just opened up the NSAPI, literally that month, and BB was one of the first programs to dynamically generate web pages.  The idea was I could install it, leave it onscreen and tell from across the room whether things were OK (green), or there was a problem (red).

The problem with being a Systems Administrator is visiblilty.  If you’re visible, it’s generally because there’s a problem (which is of course, your fault), and needs to be fixed.  If you’re not visible, it’s “why are we paying this guy so much?”.  Big Brother was helpful here in a bunch of ways – first it published system and network information in a “red is bad / green is good” format easily understood by PHB’s.  This kept them busy.  If there was a problem, they could just hit “refresh” instead of “redial”.  Good for me, because the last thing i want to do when I’m putting out a fire is discuss putting out the fire…”

And Big Brother became popular.  Used everywhere.  Like Nagios is today.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but we were causing some companies real pain.  Quest was one of those companies.  They were selling their Foglight software at about $50K a pop.  BB covered a lot of the same ground for free.  Quest salesmen would hit a place and see Big Brother already there.  They called us ‘the virus’.  So they did the smart thing – offered us a pile of money and bought BB.  We sold out.

I didn’t expect the downside.  Quest is a sales company.  They could be selling Ginsu knives – they’re a sales machine, it’s what they do, and they do it well.  BB was a 99.5% free product and the sales guys saw a big mailing list.

For 4 years I tried to hold the community together.  I couldn’t mention how Quest had forbidden us to upgrade the free product, or cease providing support on the mailing list.  Sales guys wanted to spam the list of people who downloaded the free version – I told them they couldn’t – that it was against the privacy agreement we had – even went to the company lawyers to make sure we wouldn’t violate our own Privacy Agreement.

So the privacy agreement got changed… then there was the “upgrade or die” message that went out – that killed the community.  Thank goodness Henrik created Xymon, a Big Brother clone (“can’t we sue them for copying… no you don’t want to do that”), and salvaged what was left of the brotherhood.

I’ve spent the last 10 years there taking care of BB.  Spent the last year architecting a cloud version (that I really like).  It’s not like there are a lot of dev resources… there was me, Rob and Jun.  I was responsible for ‘the vision thing’, new features, and the User Interface.

My departure effectively puts BB in maintenance mode. And it’s really strange to not be associated with this thing I created.

And I need to look for work.  And because I had no idea this was coming, I was really blindsided.  Couldn’t find a copy of my resume anywhere (I finally found a copy on The Wayback Machine – the archive of old web pages maintained by the Internet Archive).

And it’s scary.  I’m about to turn 50.  50?  And I suspect I’m about to deal with Ageism for the first time.  This is going to be interesting.  It certainly focused my attention.  And living in Key West?  Not a huge demand for senior Unix guys down here (except at the Navy base).

I’m lucky because Quest has a sensible policy regarding Inventions – you can invent something and it’s yours provided it’s done with all your own resources and on your own time.   I also always have a side-project going – generally to do with new stuff I want to learn about – so it’s not like the skills aren’t current (video, cloud, jquery, big storage).

So what’s next?

I’d like to go back to doing SysAdmin work.  Taking care of machines and networks… there’s never been a period where I haven’t taken care of machines and a network, so that’s pretty comfortable.  I suspect I may run into “But you haven’t used Version 7.1 of blah blah” (look in the resume I probably wrote something similar to blah blah at some point).

I like being a Sys Admin…. I used to describe my work as a combination of Clint Eastwood and Mr Spock – rarely have I run into problems that required a committee to solve them; that’s what I do, it’s what Iike to do.  Even dealing with users.  I’ve mellowed – I’m no longer the BOFH (Bastard Operator From Hell)… then again put me in a room with enough stupid users for long enough and that may change.

And there are the patents.  2 of them, with more being filed.  My favorite is the “Consumer Self-Activated Financial Card”… you get the card first, then activate it yourself.  Maybe Paypal, Google, Facebook or some bank might be interested.  Activation patents are cool because if you can’t activate, you can’t do anything else.

See it here: and click on any of the pictures.

No matter what I’m sure this is going to be a trip.

And, by request, a link to my resume:

3 comments for “We sold out…

  1. GG
    October 7, 2013 at 8:23 pm

    BigBrother was the best monitoring tool I had the pleasure to use!

    (FogLight is a huge downgrade)

    • admin
      April 20, 2014 at 7:13 am

      I always called Foglight Fogbank… BB may be staging a comeback… stay tuned for some cool news :)

  2. Rod
    August 20, 2014 at 10:04 pm

    I’ve been using BB since 2002 — I just introduced xymon to my new boss — he loves it. It rocks!
    Thank you Sean!

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