Servers in the Movies – Our Top Ten

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A few weeks ago, we wrote about the top “Ten Servers that Changed the World.” In reaction, I decided to make my own list… The Ten Servers that Changed the Fictional World.

There are two guidelines for this list. One, they must exist only in the world of movies or TV. Second, they need to fit the following definition: A server is a computer system that provides services or data to other computing systems – called clients – over a network or other communication device.

With that said, here they are. In no particular order…


1. Teletraan 1 – Transformers (1983 – 2007)

You might not know much about the Transformers yet, but by next summer, you will. If a server is a computer system that maintains and controls other computer systems, then Teletraan is definitely a server.

Teletraan is the computer that assisted and recreated the Autobots and Decepticons in the Transformers TV show. It was the computer that picked out who would be a semi-truck and who would be a cassette recorder. It routinely provided the lower computer systems (i.e. Transformers) with new data via the spy satellite or extensive database. It was hardware built for imaging.

Real-world comparison: When you think of a computer that excels in graphic design, you think of Apple. So, in theory, we could compare Teletraan with Apple’s Xserve. Two dual-core 3GHz Xeon processors with a Xserve RAID for 7TB of Autobot history. On ‘roids.


2. MCP – Tron (1982)

The Master Control Program was a massive server running multiple programs at once. The ENCOM corporation had many divisions, each one utilizing this mainframe server for storage and operation. Each program could wander around the mainframe and interact with other programs, ultimately destroying the MCP or operating system and creating big problems. (Not to mention the memory leaks in the RAM were out of control!) Clearly the hardware was in need of a revision. ECC memory and Memory Protection were desperately needed. In the end, the heroes celebrated their triumph over the MCP inside their virtual world. Little did they know, come Monday, the IT admin would probably reload the “damaged” MCP software from a backup-tape – and they would all be deleted shortly after.

Real-world comparison: The MCP could be compared to any modern day operating system. The idea that the MCP would absorb other programs and take over their functions is not unheard of – for example, Apple launched the Dashboard after Konfabulator was created. (And Microsoft has a few anti-trust suits under its belt to further illustrate this point.)


3. UNIX environment – Jurassic Park (1993)

The UNIX environment here is a classic geek joke. Everything we saw was real – created by Silicon Graphics and called IRIX. InGen was the corporation funding the island, and from an IT perspective they let the worst possible thing happen: they allowed one programmer to design the infrastructure with no supervision. What’s worse, they obviously required no documentation of what was done. The result was a kid had to hack in and gain ROOT privileges. The likelihood of a young kid knowing a way to get ROOT (and not a more experienced programmer) is pretty hard to swallow. The hardware for this server was probably minimal, running door locks and starting Quicktime movies. “We spared no expense!” You would think that with the millions of dollars they spent on the park, they could have hired a couple newbie programmers and added a server on the backend.

Real-world comparison: Since the actual screen shots used in the movie were based on real software, there isn’t much to compare. This could have been any run of mill UNIX server with various dummy terminals.


4. WOPR (War Operations Plan Response) – WarGames (1983)

The good people working at NORAD decided to give total control of the nuclear weapons to a computer, specifically the War Operations Plan Response server. It was a computer they bought, and obviously didn’t research very well. My biggest criticism of the WOPR is that the NORAD folks didn’t look at what they had – it had games on it. Everyone knows, if you want a computer system to be optimized for its sheer power, you delete the games. There’s a reason that Windows Server 2003 doesn’t come with Solitaire.

Real-world comparison: The WOPR hardware itself was probably pretty simple, the radar information from around the country was fed in via fiber optic cables and interpreted as a whole. Then the commands to the missiles could be phoned out and delivered via the 1200bps modem (remember this was 1983). The data analysis wouldn’t be much different from a weather station’s software, with multiple servers being clustered together, commonly called a Beowulf Cluster. (Also used for the Sony Playstation 2.)


5. SKYNET – The Terminator(1984)

The SKYNET computer was designed for missile defense, and I’m guesssing nobody who designed this computer system saw “WarGames” (see above). The hardware for this server would have been some sort of distributed system, because if it was at one location, turning it off would have been simple. The software running on SKYNET must have been very buggy at first. (Imagine how incorrectly a child would learn everything if he was allowed to teach himself instead of being taught.) Maybe that’s why SKYNET began killing everyone once it got the chance.

Real-world comparison: Although we can’t see it, most of the internet we use comes from an Akamai server. It’s a basic web/file server but it synchronizes constantly with other Akamai servers. When you download a file, it comes from one of maybe hundreds of servers. That’s why the server doesn’t go down when millions of people hit it at once. All that needs to happen is for Akamai to gain control of our nuclear weapons.


6. The Gibson – Hackers (1995)

Hacking the Gibson has become a euphemism for showing off your skills. The actual nature of this machine is much less showy. The name comes from an homage to a sci-fi writer, William Gibson, and was used to calculate oil drilling locations and data. The movie depicts this as a single computer, which doesn’t exist in reality. They do exist, however, in clusters. The server from the movie (aside from the gratuitous GUI) is just a basic server running UNIX. At the end of the movie, the IT team tried to fend off the attacks of hackers around the world. If they only would’ve had a stateful firewall in front of that server, they could have saved a lot of time. The firewall would’ve blocked all non-solicited traffic to the inside network, leaving only the telnet connections in, which could be turned off in a state of emergency.

Real-world comparison: GRID computing is similar to a Beowulf Cluster but differs in the open standard and distances. The cluster needs the computers to be directly connected and running similar software. The GRID concept allows computers all over the world, running different software, to contribute to the overall computing power. An example of this would SETI@Home or Folding@Home. The dream that a single server could analyze as much data as 10,000 desktop computers is just that – a dream.


7. The Source – The Matrix (1999 – 2003)

The Source was a server that supplies data and services to multiple subsystems and computer networks, but the actual hardware is hard to imagine. The movie explains the actual world with a unique, yet effective plot mechanism. They don’t know their own history and origins of the machine world. Convenient.

Real-world comparison: A logical real-world equivalent to the Matrix is Second Life. According to Linden Labs, they use servers that have two dual core processors which they call Class 4. They call the network of servers a “grid,” but only because of the layout, not because of distributed computing power. Each server runs a specific area of the world. There are disputes, but one report says there are 2,579 servers. However, the World of Warcraft users will argue that they have the bigger, better world. Second Life doesn’t have as many users as World of Warcraft, but WoW has individual servers (or realms) and a relatively static world in comparison. If you’ve played Second Life, then you’ll understand the comparison. The world is so slow to render and low in quality and resolution that it becomes almost unbearable. It would take some serious horsepower for a system to render a world so realistic, a human would believe in it.


8. HAL9000 - 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)

The HAL9000 or SAL9000 (the earthbound female counterpart) was responsible for making decisions and carrying out orders aboard a spaceship when humans were not willing or capable of doing so. The break-through on this server was the AI, supposedly the most sophisticated artificial intelligence man could produce. When the movie was released, it was believed that this level of intelligence could be created by the year 2001 – but we now understand that it’s much further away than anticipated.

Real-world comparison: This computer has been compared to the Blue Gene. The Blue Gene/L currently holds the top spot on the fastest super computer list with 131,072 processors. It would be a top contender to play HAL9000 on the next space mission. My only suggestion would be to have a kill switch incase HAL decides the humans are conflicting with orders and needs to be “deleted.”


9. VIKI – I, Robot (2004)

V.I.K.I. is the governing intelligence behind all the robots in the film, “I, Robot.” In the movie, V.I.K.I. is a positronic brain – a CPU that can create new pathways for each new task it learns. While nobody has perfected the technology, they have patented it. Eventually, the final product would be a computer that could be taught – a technology that seems inevitable based on CPU trends. If you want to know more about positronic brains, watch some Star Trek, The Next Generation.

Real-world comparison: This is a bit of a stretch, so bare with me. V.I.K.I. was the server responsible for sending out updates and keeps tabs on all the robots in the world. When she decided humans were a threat, she sent out a final update that allowed the robots to begin killing humans.We currently have a server/client scenario that is marketed to sit in every family‘s living room and receive commands from the “mothership.” We call it Xbox Live. So next time you are changing the CD in there, watch your fingers! Microsoft could decide to send a lethal update to our Xboxes!


10. Deep Thought - Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy (2005)

The Deep Thought computer was created to answer one question. What is the ultimate answer to Life, the Universe, and Everything? As you might imagine, the question is a bit vague. So the computer begins to calculate the answer as it has been commanded. After 7.5 million years, the answer is 42. The amount of computer cycles to compute all possibilities is quite large. Calculating all the possibilities from a question is currently a busy project.

Real-world comparison: There was a paper written by Philippe Oechslin, describing the benefit of Time vs Memory in computational speed. It explained how you could calculate out all the possibilities in an algorithm and save the results, and then the software would only need to access the file instead of force the CPU to do the math. Of course, the most applicable use of this has been for password cracking. Rainbow tables are the result of this study. The basic set of characters doesn‘t take too long on top of the line hardware. However, every good system administrator knows that enforcing complex passwords in a Windows domain is standard. That means eight characters with a least one capital letter. If you use that character set, you are looking at a bit longer. Over 32 years on a single CPU computer, still much better than 7.5 million years!

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