“never attribute to malevolence what you can attribute to incompetence”
This is a diatribe I wrote about the discomfort caused when my home ISP went through a very badly managed domain name change in early 2002. This is ancient history now, but it’s an example of how perceived corporate expertise has a way of evaporating in the face of a real-world problem.
If you visited this site in the past and lost track of it, give your thanks to AT&T. For years, the site lived very happily at members.mediaone.net, even after the ISP was bought by AT&T Broadband. But in March, 2002, I was given approximately two weeks to move a relatively successful (though modest) Web site to a URL hosted at home.attbi.com. I spent months sorting out the results. Example: the old URL was very easy to find since it was prominently listed on all major search engines. AT&T provided no URL forwarding help.
My father-in-law had always hated AT&T. I was more tolerant, even though the worst credit card I ever owned also carried their logo. I admit I was disquieted when AT&T took over my ISP. But I thought to myself, “AT&T is loaded with people who were there at the foundations of the Internet. How bad can they really screw it up?” Pretty badly, it turned out. Their behavior during the transition reflected an almost willful ignorance of what it means to provide web service to people. Sure, customer service minions would answer the phone and try to help, but they were powerless to address transition problems.
Since then, I’ve moved the site to a stable URL that’s not going to change: www.smat.us/maypole/. Even if the underlying ISP moves around again (and, in fact, attbi.com has since become comcast.net) this URL will almost certainly remain constant. In fact, I can now report that it has remained working through a hosting ISP change and through a change to active content management.
I started the Hastings Maypole Web site in 1999. After a year or so of fielding questions about Maypole dancing, I posted a Maypole FAQ on in in early 2001. By January 2002, all of the major Web search engines listed the site as one of the top destinations for information on Maypoles and Maypole dancing.
By the end of March 2002, however, all the search engines could do was serve up broken links.
The Maypole site had started out in some free Web space we acquired from Media One along with a cable modem (mediaone.net). Then, Media One was bought out by AT&T Broadband. In order to satisfy the demands of corporate identity, Broadband felt the inevitable urge to change the domain name to something more AT&T-like.
There’s a sort of inevitability to changes like that, so one tends to acquiesce to them when they happen. Such changes give a company the opportunity to demonstrate their efficiency, or lack thereof. I should have realized that the conglomerate who brought me the AT&T Universal Card (the credit card that never made the same mistake twice; instead it developed innovative ways to screw up my account) couldn’t help but mess up a large-scale Web site migration.
They started with an impossible timetable.
In late 2001, Broadband started making noises about how they were going to have to change the domain name. Details were sketchy, and it wasn’t until early 2002 that they announced their strategy and timetable. We were given a little over two months (March 15) during which we had to relocate our Web pages onto their new servers. AT&T wasn’t going to bother with anything so pedestrian as copy files themselves, or to grandfather the existing server plant. Instead, it would fall on the users to move their own pages. And AT&T made it very clear that the servers would disappear entirely and not even provide forwarding services (ARRGH!!) after March 15.
I started making plans to move as soon as I could. I called AT&T several times but was constantly put off and told “Wait till we contact you about moving over to the new server.” I argued, hectored, and begged in February to no avail. In early March, something finally gave within their organization, and a customer service representative was actually able to get me going on the new server.
At the time I didn’t appreciate how big a mess things were
It turned out there was a bit of diabolical sense to this. I never knew nor cared what sort of servers Media One had used. Although I know an absurd amount about computers, I really didn’t have much serious experience with Web sites, especially with a conversion between incompatible servers.
And that was the rub: the new AT&T servers were clearly Unix-based, and the Media One servers were not. What that meant was that the new servers were sensitive to certain things the old ones weren’t. The most notable difference was that the old server didn’t care whether you use upper- or lower-case letters in a URL. If you called a directory “Maypole” then people could find it just as easily by typing http://www.a.com/maypole/ as http://www.a.com/Maypole/. So it was easy to tell people URLs, since you didn’t have to keep track of capitalization. The new server, however, cared very much whether you capitalized things correctly.
Unfortunately, I didn’t figure that out until after I’d installed files with the name “Maypole” on the new server, and encountered confusion from people who had tried to find the site after I recited the new URL.
But this problem was solvable, one way or another. The real killer was that AT&T gave me less than two weeks to move my site to its new home.
It seemed unlikely that AT&T would have forgotten to buy the intellectual property that went along with the rest of the property, so the switch no doubt had to do with “corporate identity” or some such thing.
As of mid-2002 the FAQ has had three or four different URLs. The site (and the FAQ) started out on mediaone.net, which was purchased by AT&T’s Broadband unit.
In early 2002, the Broadband people announced that they needed to abandon the mediaone.net domain name by March 15. In theory, this gave customers two months to do the conversion.
In fact, the people at Broadband had no idea of how to do this migration. To make things easier for someone (certainly not for the user community) they tried to “phase in” users over the two month period, and they simply couldn’t figure out how to phase people in any faster. I spent most of February trying to find out when and were the FAQ and the rest of the Maypole site would be moving to. They couldn’t give me any useful information before they were ready to move me over, which occurred the first week of March. That left me less than two weeks to do the move and inform my user community.
The new URL, on home.attbi.com, went live in early March, and I updated the old site to warn of the impending move. Unfortunately, there wasn’t an easy way to fix things with all of the major search engines. Until March 15, every major search engine could reliably point a person to the Maypole FAQ and to the Hastings Maypole Web site. After March 15, all there were were broken links.
The people at Broadband have absolutely no idea at how to set up a Web site. They took the Mediaone operation, which ran more-or-less smoothly, and tried to make it into a clone of the AT&T Worldnet service, apparently by importing some (but not all) of the Worldnet site structure.
Moreover, they had no idea of what it means to move thousands (millions?) of Web pages from one server architecture to another. So we poor users were given no guidance of what to expect.