Information, Technology & Consulting

David Avery's Path to Dartmouth

David Avery

System Administrator David Avery retires on April 29, 2016 after over 30 years of service. He will receive emeritus status.

Cadet

David as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, 1968.

Moving through the light jungle

Moving through the light jungle in Vietnam, 1969.

UVA

The University of Virginia, where David received his PhD in neuroscience in 1974.

Kiewit Computer Center

Dartmouth's Kiewit Computation Center. When he arrived on campus in 1985, David was the system administrator for the IBM 4381, a mainframe computer.

The Systems Administrator Retires from Dartmouth after more than 30 years of service.

 

By Elizabeth Kelsey

David Avery joined ITS—then, Computing Services—in 1985 as the system administrator for an IBM 4381, a mainframe computer that supported research computing. The 4381 weighed over one ton, and with its cabinets side-by-side, would have stretched 40 feet long. Priced at 1.2 million dollars, the machine had 8 gigabytes of disk and 16 MB of RAM. By comparison, an iPod 4 has more RAM and storage.

In its day, though, the 4381 provided cutting-edge technology: it ran the first true database management system at Dartmouth. For the first time, students could explore Structured Query Language (SQL), a standard interactive language for getting information from and updating a database. The 4381 was also the first system to use a virtual machine architecture, allowing many distinct individual servers to run on a single hardware platform. Virtualization became the central architecture used by most systems in ITS. 

Changing Times

David's arrival on campus coincided with a time of great upheaval in the world of computing, beginning with the advent of personal computers, graphical user interfaces, and local area networks which together soon made timesharing passé. It wasn’t at all clear how computing would evolve, but Dartmouth was fortunate to have a skilled technical staff and management that encouraged employees to be bold, take chances, and innovate.  

“The result was a burst of creativity that put Dartmouth once again at the forefront of computing in colleges and universities,” says Punch Taylor, who was David’s manager at the time. “There was a palpable sense of pride both within Computing Services and across campus in what was achieved.”

Punch says that all of Computing Services contributed to those accomplishments. “But the technical heavy lifting was done along about 30 feet of the west basement hallway in Kiewit [Computation Center] by a small, dynamic team that included David Avery.”

Dartmouth Career

The success of the 4381, largely due to David’s expertise, helped secure many IBM grants for Dartmouth. David was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor of Computer Information Systems from 1986 until that program’s end in 1991. He was a leader within Central Computing around the adoption of the Microsoft Windows platform, and brought in the first Windows-based servers to Dartmouth in the early 1990s as a lead architect. The platform has since grown to support over 50 percent of the institution's central computing environment.

In the late '90s, David implemented the first pharmacy and electronic medical records system for the College; Citrix to support Windows applications in the dominant Mac environment; and the first Active Directory for the College. In 2009, he worked with Cisco to install and pilot the company’s premiere hardware visualization platform: Dartmouth was one of the first institutions in the nation to successfully install and utilize this core computing infrastructure. That same year, to support Dartmouth’s president at the time, David installed an on-premises Exchange service, a new email and calendar system, in only six weeks.

The achievements listed above are mere highlights of David’s long, outstanding career at Dartmouth. Within ITS, he has received six internal awards for exceptional performance, including the Wizard award for recognition of his technical expertise, by his peers.

Military background

David arrived at his position in the unpredictable way of most system administrators.

“I have never met a high school student who said ‘I want to be a system administrator or a network administrator.’ No one aspires to those jobs,” he says. Instead, according to David, virtually everyone who works in infrastructure at any organization started off doing something else before discovering they were good at the hardcore technical work the field requires.

His original plan was to become an army career officer. After graduating from the Virginia Military Institute, he received a regular commission in the U.S. Army. He became a cavalry officer and attended the usual combat arms schools: basic, airborne, and ranger. Afterwards, he was commanding an armored company in Texas, when he requested an assignment in Vietnam.

Once there, he signed into the 11th army cavalry regiment, but was shortly placed as an advisor to the special forces camp in Loc Ninh, a village on the Cambodian border, which became the provisional capital for the Vietcong in South Vietnam—in other words, a very dangerous place.

The first time David was wounded, he was sent to an in-country hospital before being sent back out to the field, this time, as a leader in an armored cavalry platoon in the Michelin rubber plantation near Quan Loi. He had plans to attend Fort Bragg’s Special Warfare School in North Carolina to earn his green beret, but was wounded again, this time severely.

In 1969 he was medically evacuated out of Vietnam to Walter Reed, where he spent a year in the Maryland hospital’s ward 1: “the infamous amputee ward,” he calls it, because doctors initially planned to remove his left arm. He was the only patient on the unit who kept all four limbs.

David: “Everybody on that ward had had a sudden life-changing event where it wasn’t clear what you were going to be doing next year, but it’s obvious you’re not going to be doing what you thought you would be doing.”

At Walter Reed, he received a letter from the army, which stated they regretted to inform him that his appointment to the special war school had been withdrawn because he was no longer physically qualified. 

A change of plans

While still a patient, David ended up working in a pathology lab, where he prepped cadavers for freshman anatomy courses at the Uniform Services School of Medicine in Bethesda, MD. The work inspired him to apply to study science at the University of Virginia. He took his GREs while recovering from a surgery, immobilized and reaching up above his head to fill in the test’s bubble forms, a proctor standing by the side of his bed.

He was discharged from the army on a Friday in late August, 1970 and started classes at UVA the following Monday.

“If I had any sense I would have not done that,” David says. “I would have taken a year to get a job, get an apartment, to say to myself: get your head straight, think about whether you really want to have a life in academia. Is this really what you’re good at.”

“But I didn’t do any of those things,” he adds. “You think: you’re 23 years old, you’re a young airborne ranger, you can do anything.”

He received his PhD in neuroscience from the University of Virginia in 1974, completed postdoctoral work at UVA and at UCLA between 74-76. He returned to university studies to receive his BS in computer science in 1982.

Initially he was interested in the area of prenatal pharmacology, and taught at the University of Arkansas School of Medicine. But rather than thinking up new research strategies, the hallmark of a faculty member, his strengths instead lay in the technical execution of research mechanics. He discovered he had a knack for submitting data to get a drug approved rather than inventing the drug itself. After that realization, he left the university to work for a series of companies that did non-clinical research, drug testing, and from there, came to Dartmouth. 

On call

Now that David is leaving ITS, he says he’ll miss the opportunity to grow Dartmouth’s virtual environment into the cloud, locating servers partially on campus in the institution's three server rooms, and partially off campus connected on the Internet. “We are several months from putting our first virtual machines into the cloud. Since I have only two weeks left, I won’t be able to participate in that at all.”

Upon retirement, he’ll teach IT classes at River Valley Community College, one of the few institutions in the region that offers computer infrastructure courses.

Of his years at Dartmouth, he says he has always enjoyed his job: it was the type of work where one never knows what’s going to happen.

“Much of systems work is anticipating problems and solving problems and the problems are different every day,” he says. “It’s exciting to come in and never have any idea what you’re going to be working on. You know what you think you’re going to be working on that day, but something of higher priority may jump in.”

What won’t he miss about his job?

“For the last 20 years I have slept with a pager on my bedside table.”

David has been on call, formally, one week out of every eight, but would frequently get contacted for his expertise on one of Dartmouth’s 23 critical applications, such as the voiceover IP that supports 911 calls.

“Every night you could get awakened at three in the morning and have to open your laptop and then VPN in to the college and be fixing some problem that’s important to get repaired before the start of the business day, or in many cases as soon as possible.”

He laughs when says he still remembers, the time 22 years ago when he realized the day his department would be rolling out a new payroll system was the same date his wife was scheduled to deliver their son.

“I told Punch, my supervisor at the time, that I would be out at the hospital that day, and he said, ‘oh, don’t worry about it. Just take a laptop with you. There are network connections in the delivery rooms. If there’s a problem we’ll just page you and you can work from the delivery room.”

As it turned out, it was a flawless rollout, and there were no interruptions.

Emeritus

David Avery retires on April 29. Dartmouth’s trustees have named him an emeritus staff member, which has important benefits after leaving the institution, including the ability to keep a Dartmouth email account and on the day of one’s death, having the Dartmouth flag on the green being flown at half-staff.

“I suspect the former will prove of greater utility to me than the latter,” he says.

 

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