Back in may of 2021, I wasn't really a regular user of govdeals. For whatever reason, on an ordinary Tuesday night, I decided to have a look at the auctions.
I'd been gaining interest in PBX systems lately, having acquired my Nortel Meridian 1 and Lucent Definity systems in the last year. I'd added 'Nortel' to my usual list of auction site search terms as a result. I figured maybe I'd find Norstar, BCM, or possibly even Meridian 1 parts or equipment. What I actually found was much less expected and much more interesting.
The Nortel Meridian SL-100 PBX: 47 brown, green, and gray frames and cabinets of TDM call processing and switching equipment. I also realized later that week that there was CS-2100 equipment in the mix as well.
For the unaware, the DMS-100 is a class 5 end-office telephone switch: the kind of thing your LEC (AT&T, Frontier, Verizon, etc.) would have down at the local CO serving you analog POTS lines, ISDN telephone service, etc. The SL-100 was a variant sold as a very large PBX for campus-level installations such as large businesses or government.
The DMS-100 and the SL-100 are largely based on the same hardware and software. I'd been saying for some time that I wanted a DMS-100 telephone switch to play around with, and this was the real deal.
The CS-2100 was introduced later and is the PBX version of the CS-2000, a VoIP-capable successor to the DMS-100 utilizing hardware in a pair of CompactPCI chassis paired with a redundant set of Nortel ethernet or ATM switches all lashed to the older DMS style hardware. Initially the CS-2100 was effectiely an add-on to the SL-100 hardware although media gateways were later developed to support an all-VoIP platform, eliminating the dependence on the aging DMS hardware used to run the TDM side.
You'd have to be crazy to buy such a thing. It was deactivated and powered down, but still physically installed in a university building in Alabama. Everything still cabled, everything still bolted together. The building had no loading dock, but at least it was on the ground floor. The listing started at a bid of $1500, but had a reserve for some unknown price higher than that. Beyond that, the university wanted the buyer to have insurance to deinstall it, just in case you knocked over the SL-100 and it took the building down around it, I guess.
With some convincing from friends, I decided it was a Bad Idea to attempt to purchase the thing. I did put a low bid on it ($1,694.20, a meme really) just to show some interest and see where it went.
A couple weeks later, the last day of the auction came and went and I had been the only bidder. I didn't meet reserve, of course. Oh well, they'd either relist it, or have to scrap it...
Or so I thought.
The rest of the week passed and almost a week later, I received an email from govdeals advising me that I'd been given a second chance to purchase the SL-100 for my original bid of $1,694.20.
Of course, I was in ecstatic disbelief at that point. I had already decided I wasn't going to buy the thing, but here was my chance to change my mind. Worse yet, I had slowly convinced myself that I could actually pull it off. I couldn't resist, and there my adventure began....
Before I fully committed to doing this, it was important to have an understanding of what it all entailed. I had until friday to decide whether I was going forward with the purchase.
Prior to the auction ending, a number of friends and I had already discussed some of the aspects that removal would entail. We had a wide variety of concerns: whether the frames and cabinets could be physically maneuvered out, the weight of all the equipment exceeding non-CDL GVWR limits, whether the switch software had been erased as part of normal IT data destruction procedures, and the short time frame for removal that the original auction had stated.
Despite all that, I had at least three friends that were willing to support me in my insanity, and assist with the removal operations.
The rest of the week was spent trying to determine viability of the whole thing, and talking on the phone with questions for the university people when I had time. I was able to confirm that the switch was in working order when it was turned off a few years prior. The HDDs would not be wiped as they felt that the data on the switch did not necessitate that. The university was willing to push the removal date out enough that I felt it was possible to organize.
By the end of the week, I had enough information to decide I wanted to move ahead with it. I let the university know I would be making the purchase, and that I intended to arrive for removal the week of June 21st. That left about 2 weeks to perform the real planning, which began immediately.
There was a lot of preparation work to be done before the actual date of removal.
I needed to rent some storage units, get insured, rent a truck, rent a couple hotel rooms, and secure some moving equipment and tools in the 2 weeks leading up to the trip.
I was able to secure help from 3 other people for the entire week of the 20th. I would pack everything Saturday night, leave from the chicago area on Sunday early morning, pick up 2 people on the drive down to alabama, and the 3rd from the airport in Nashville.
We would pick up a one-way box truck rental in Nashville as well, then continue to Tuscaloosa that night. Upon arrival, we'd check in to the hotel rooms and try to get as much sleep for the next day.
The next day, I needed to sign some paperwork and get a bill of sale. Then we would head over to the switchroom and get our first look.
We'd then spend the next 5 days disassembling the switch, marking where cables and parts went as they were removed using some preprinted label pairs I made. Some of the switch parts would go onto the truck to be taken back to the chicago area, and some parts would go into storage in Tuscaloosa. If everything went well, we'd have the switch room cleaned up friday evening, finish putting everything into storage that night, and spend all of saturday travelling back towards Chicago.
Saturday June 19th, I had some other things to take care of during the day, and then I got most of my tools and equipment packed up that night. I went to bed rather late around 2 or 3AM on Sunday night, and got up early at around 6AM to eat a quick breakfast, finish packing some things, and then leave.
After a few hours of driving, I picked up two members of the removal crew and then continued southward towards Nashville. The drive was fairly uneventful, but I did miss an exit which caused a detour into missouri. Just over the border, we rerouted and got back on track, and did get a chance to see the Ohio and Mississippi rivers near their junction.
Once we reached Nashville, the truck rental company called to tell us that the truck needed to be picked up from an alternate location. We were a bit early to pick up our fourth party from the airport, but we needed a chance to reorganize the car anyway. Between the first three of us, we had managed to pack a Crown Victoria completely full of tools and equipment, and we only managed to make enough space for a fourth person and their luggage by riding with some of the things on the laps of two people.
Thankfully, we didn't have to ride like that for very long since we made our way to the truck rental location immediately after picking up our fourth person. We took this chance to move some of the larger moving equipment to the truck, purchase a ladder, and finally get dinner before continuing on our way to Tuscaloosa to check into our hotel rooms.
We got into the rooms and went to sleep early on monday morning
The next morning, the first order of business after breakfast was twofold: I went to sign some paperwork and get the bill of sale before proceeding to the switchroom to begin work, while someone else picked up some diesel exhaust fluid for the truck and added some since it was running low the day before.
We all met at the switchroom and got our first look at the SL-100. The telecom engineer pointed out to us the active equipment that we should not touch and also pointed out a few shelves of spare and decommissioned parts that were mine to take as well. Then he left us to it.
After verifying the power was indeed off and we felt assured that we wouldn't be vapor-depositing any wrenches onto our faces in the near future, we did our best to identify all of the HDDs in the switch to be removed and packed separately. I wanted to make sure that the HDDs were well preserved until they could be imaged.
While one person was working on removing and packaging those HDDs, the other three of us worked on starting to remove cabling.
By the end of the day, we had disconnected all the cabling for the front row of equipment that made up the CS-2100, plus the SPME frame in the next row back. We had unbolted the SPME from the floor and moved it out of the room to get some more space to work. All the HDDs had been packed up into a single box which we brought back to the hotel room.
We determined that some additional tools would be necessary, so we purchased them at harbor freight that night, then got some dinner before going to bed.
Then next morning, we returned to the switch room and unbolted the four CS-2100 equipment in the front row. By around noon, we had also moved these cabinets out of the room to get some more space to work.
At this point, it was becoming apparent that things weren't moving as fast as we would have liked. Additionally, it was difficult to move the frames out of the building using the appliance hand truck I had brought.
The hand truck I brought had fold out wheels to support the load at about a 40 degree angle. While we could secure the equipment frames to the appliance truck and get them tilted, the frames were too tall to make it out the seven foot door to the switch room at that angle of tilt. This meant we had to support the load manually and tilt it another 10-20 degrees to get it through every door on the way to where the truck was parked.
If this wasn't bad enough, we then had to drag the equipment up a ramp into the truck. We managed to do this with the two lightest equipment frames, but it was clear we had no good way to do that for the heavier ones.
By the end of the day, we had moved a small Meridian IPE column out of the room, began decabling the large 42" wide MCNI and DPCC cabinets, and had managed to unbolt and shift one of the DMS 27" frames in addition to having moved the four CS-2100 cabinets and the SPME out earlier in the day.
After returning to the hotel, we had a couple problems to solve. The first was simply to get a truck with a liftgate so we could move the heavier frames and cabinets. We made a reservation for a truck the next day.
The next was figuring out if it was possible to get the MCNI and DPCC cabinets out of the room. With dimensions for the cabinet (42"x26"x72"), doorway (35"x83"), and hallway (48" wide) in hand, I started thinking about how to move the cabinet. In my physically and mentally exhausted and sleep deprived state, I must have spent at least 10 minutes on this geometry problem before finally realizing that the 42" cabinet had a smaller width than the hallway did at 48".
Once I realized that, it became obvious that all we needed to do was get those cabinets up on some mover's dollies and move them out into the hallway. Then, if we couldn't get them rotated, we could just push it down the hallway to somewhere where it could be rotated. This prompted another trip to Harbor Freight to pick up some "1000lb" movers dollies.
The next day, it was straight back to work decabling and unbolting equipment frames.
Unfortunately the truck we had reserved had a check-engine light, so we called around and found another truck rental place with a smaller liftgate truck near Birmingham. After conversing with the telecom engineer a bit about what frames are the most vital to take for a minimal system, two of us left to pick up the truck. The trip was a bit over 2 hours, and we returned with a liftgate truck after having some trouble with tail and brake lights.
We finished up decabling and unbolting the 42" MCNI cabinet and began moving it around 11am. It was necessary to use a Johnson bar to lift the cabinet up enough to get the movers dollies underneath. Once we had the cabinet on the dollies, we moved it out into the hallway and made our way out of the building with it.
Getting the cabinet onto the liftgate and into the truck was a long and difficult process of using the Johnson bar to shuffle the cabinet first onto the liftgate, then off the liftgate into the truck, and lastly back onto dollies to get it into the truck. Additionally it was discovered that the so-called "1000lb" dollies weren't really good for that much weight since the caster wheels wouldn't swivel under that much weight without some help.
After the MCNI, the DPCC followed, and two of the CS-2100 cabinets.
That night, we first went to home depot to see if we could find better movers dollies but without success. Then we headed to one of the storage units to attempt unloading some of the cabinets.
After unloading the MCNI and one of the CS-2100 cabinets, we decided that it was late and we should head back to the hotel to get some sleep.
At this point, we're all a little demoralized since it has become obvious that 47 equipment frames and cabinets can't move out of the switchroom in 5 days. At the end of the third day, eight frames overall have moved out of the switchroom: two on a truck to go back towards Chicago, two in storage, two on the liftgate truck, and two staged outside the switchroom ready to be loaded on a truck. A ninth frame had been unbolted and was ready to be moved as soon as we had the space.
On the fourth day, things seem to be moving more smoothly. By 12:30pm, we had a DTEI and an LGE unbolted and freed, with an LCE soon to follow. We loaded the truck and got five more frames unloaded into storage that night. At this point, seven frames were stored with two on a one-way rental truck to go back towards Chicago. Another two frames were set to be loaded tomorrow, and a third was almost unbolted.
On the fifth and final day working in the switchroom, we discovered a pair of 14" Priam drives in an IOE frame and decide to grab them. I figured even if there's no recoverable data, these drives would be useful to friends in the vintage computing hobby since they're a proprietary interface with no other replacement options.
We finished unbolting the LCE and moved on to an MCAM, a CLCE, and an TME which contains both a DRAM and EDRAM announcement system. Since the MCAM contains IOCs that in turn contain HDDs, we packed the HDDs separately.
With six more frames and cabinets loaded on one truck, we started the process of cleaning out the switchroom of anything that wasn't still bolted down. All manner of spare parts, documentation, software, phones, and loose sheet metal parts made it into the Chicago-bound truck.
All in all, we got 15 frames and cabinets removed, while 32 remained. We had high confidence that enough equipment to build a minimal switch was obtained.
The rest of the night, we unloaded the liftgate truck into storage before heading to birmingham to return the truck. Since it was quite late, we stayed at a motel overnight.
We spent all of Saturday on the road back towards Chicago. One person got dropped off at their home, and another was dropped off at the airport in chicago.
Sunday, the last person was driven home and then I unloaded the contents of the one-way rental truck into my garage. I returned the truck that night.
As of the writing of this story, most of the SL-100 parts were still in Tuscaloosa. Since the HDDs and lots of media came home, I have put some effort into imaging drives, discs, disks, and tapes. There's still a lot of archival to be done, and part of the effort was to organize everything that came home well enough to make space for 13 more equipment frames.
As one-way rental trucks with liftgates simply aren't a thing, a lot of thought has been placed into how the remaining equipment in tuscaloosa will get back here to the Chicago area. I guess that will just have to be a story for next time.