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Thursday, December 8, 2011

The night I helped Art Bell troubleshoot his ISDN remotely

Years ago, I used to turn on my old AM radio late at night for entertainment while working on projects for school. The relative stillness and lack of user requests from my sysadmin gig made it a perfect time to get things done. The only thing worth listening to back then was Coast to Coast AM, and in those days, Art Bell was still running things. This is my story about helping him troubleshoot things one night.

That particular night, he spent the first hour of his show talking about random updates and other things by himself. The whole thing with his guest for that evening wouldn't start until the second hour. During that first hour, he mentioned that certain parts of his site weren't current or functioning properly because his home ISDN connection was down. He ran the show from his house, and that was part of his link-up to the world, so this was a big deal.

Naturally, my ears perked up upon hearing ISDN. I had just gone through my own epic struggle with the telco to get service running at my house. My service worked just fine and I figured I might be able to share my knowledge to help out.

It didn't hurt that I had read a little about his config at some earlier time. He was using an Ascend Pipeline router of some flavor, just like me. I know I had a P75 in those days, and he either had the same or the P50 which lacked analog ports for "real" phones. I had one of each at either end of my link to work, so it was a perfect match.

I decided to let him know that help is out there. Given that his Internet connectivity was obviously down, I fell back to some other crusty technology and sent him a fax with my info during that first hour.

In the ad break between the first and second hours, my phone rang. It was so cool! We chatted briefly about things to try and made tentative plans to work on things after the show ended four hours later. He had to get his guest dialed in, so we hung up for then.

Sure enough, after it was all over, he called me back. Doing my best with what we could observe, we figured that his actual circuit and configuration was just fine. His WAN light was off, but it wasn't blinking. That meant it could talk to the telco's switch just fine, but it wasn't actually in use. Attempting to force a connection to his ISP would fail.

I told him his ISP might try to be sneaky and claim the problem was on his end, so to save a lot of time, he could do a test to prove that it was not. All he'd have to do is dial up to someone else. I talked him through adding a new profile to his Pipeline router, and I did the same. Then he forced it to place a long-distance data call, and sure enough, it connected to me!

We only left the connection up for a couple of minutes to prove that his circuit, provisioning info, and general well-being of his router were fine. I said that was about all we could do at this point, and the rest was up to his ISP. Hopefully they'd find this isolation work useful and would get on top of it.

This was a Friday night / Saturday morning situation, so it was the last show of the week. Things seemed to be happy and healthy again on the first show that next week.

I realized much later that while our two routers were linked, both of our "normal" profiles were at risk of being disclosed to the other end. Those Ascend boxes had a mode where you could jump through your local device into the one on the other end without providing any further authentication. While I doubt that he knew about it, I certainly did.

If I had been evil, I could have done some bad things with that data.

Fortunately, I take "don't be evil" seriously. It's not just a slogan.