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BOFH - The Tin Whiskers Excuse

This post is a bit out of left field compared to what I normally talk about, but I hope some people get some value out of it. If you don’t recall the BOFH (bastard operator from hell) series, or haven’t been in the industry long enough to happen across it, you should read some of the old stories, if you need a laugh and a several hour long distraction. The basic premise was that the lazy operator would find any and every reason to do the opposite of what people wanted especially if it let him play video games at his desk. Death and destruction of the clueless and their home directories would often ensue.

Enter tin whiskers (lots of pictures). Tin whiskers are a vaguely-understood electromechanical process that is related to the use of completely tin solder as opposed to tin-lead amalgam solder. It is a problem that has been known for a decade or more, but it is becoming more pervasive due to a rise in reliance on electronics. Because of the near outright ban of lead based solders in some places in the world, the completely tin process has led to an increase in faults. Tin whiskers can cause short circuits and even metal vapor arcing which can literally fry electronics.

Some of the issue around education of the issue is around planned obsolescence - the computer industry expects that people will just replace their computers with new ones when new ones become available. A hardware failure is just another kick in the butt to shell out for that new Mac Book Pro you’ve been drooling over. People always want the best and greatest and this is reason enough. But the problem is there is a lot of hardware out there that runs a lot of what we rely on that will stay in place for a decade or more in some cases. If it ain’t broke don’t fix it, right? The problem is that it will break, and it’ll break in unpredictable ways.

Routers, switches, database servers, UPS systems, emergency sensors, orbital satellites, SCADA systems, cars, airplanes, etc… etc… Our jobs, and more critically our lives, literally depend on a lot of physical hardware to function. Unfortunately, a lot of this tech relies on scary build processes that are destined to fail.

So if you are the BOFH and you really want to take the rest of the week off or you really want an excuse to get rid of some piece of hardware that has been a thorn in your side for years now, you now have a new plausible excuse to give management when you throw that machine in the trash - tin whiskers. For the rest of us, perhaps we should be careful to build redundancy into our hardware designs and our computers/networks to lessen the impact of this pervasive design fault. This is just another reason to build in redundancy. And with that, I hope everyone is having a good week!

5 Responses to “BOFH - The Tin Whiskers Excuse”

  1. Skyphire Says:

    Brings back memories. I grew up with my nose above a soldering iron for about 15 years of my life, I never got ill from the tin smokes I inhaled, in fact maybe that’s the reason why I am never ill? ;)

    These days it’s harder to built something that lasts. Think; small SMD components that heat up faster (=shorter life), thinner copper lines, etc etc. Amalgam gives tin it’s strength. I used to repair electronics at a shop, often we got a TV set from old folks that had a common origin of failure; Old people turn the telly on 100% otherwise they don’t hear anything. Now, those speakers in old TV’s were pretty good, lot’s of bass in them. And those basses oscillate the tin from the solder points, resulting in faulty circuits and the TV shutting down. Lot’s of fun :)

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  3. thrill Says:

    @Skyphire - I spent plenty of time inhaling (and enjoying I might add) those same tin smokes.. oddly enough, I’m never sick either.. granted, when I do get sick it usually involves a stay in the hospital, but what’s a mild heart attack compared to weeks of allergies???

    I don’t have any kids, but I’m ordering a soldering kit.. just in case.. :)


  4. llvllatrix Says:

    @Skyphire - The smoke didn’t bother me as much as the sleep deprivation induced accidents. I’ve branded myself one too many times :(

  5. air_ben Says:

    Classic! It seems rather obvious (now that someone points it out) but I’m loving that ‘get out of jail clause”.

    I might have to short something and try it just for fun…