prefect
Home Engineering Audio Biking Publications Photo Gallery Personal Info
GweepNet: A History of sidehack.gweep.net
 
 

sidehackin's a sport that's just a little bit dumb

Introduction

The advent of free unix-like operating systems such as Linux, and the availability of relatively inexpensive PC hardware opened the door for the "second generation" (and logical extension) of GweepNet. Where, previously, gweeps were reliant upon discarded/decommissioned proprietary hardware (such as UnixPCs and Miniframes), free operating systems opened the door for further expansion with almost no limits. It was much easier to find or put together a PC and install Linux than it was to track down and maintain a machine like a Miniframe. The performance was also much higher - even low-end Linux machines running on 386s could outperform Miniframes and Unix PCs. This allowed more users to log in simultaneously and more complex software to run. This is not to say that interesting, non-PC hardware was avoided. Several different Sun workstations and a couple of Alpha workstations were and are used in portions of GweepNet, but the focus was generally around the freely available operating systems, rather than the proprietary non-free commercial OS's (e.g. Linux on Alpha, Linux on Sparc).

However, even with free operating systems, one major hurdle remained - network connectivity. Persistent network connections (e.g. SLIP/PPP dialups, leased lines, etc.) were very expensive in the early 90's. This meant that any type of networking was done with polled systems (e.g. UUCP). As the 90's wore on and the internet was changed from an educational entity to a commercial one, connectivity became increasingly available. Many gweeps were on the cutting-edge of the new Internet Service Provider business (notably Joe Provo, essentially a co-founder of UltraNet). This kind of access, combined with the availability of residence hall networking at Worcester Polytechnic Institute, provided the second major piece of the puzzle for GweepNet expansion.

Late August 1993 marked the start of my college career at WPI. Some number of months before arriving at WPI, I had dialed in to the GweepNet IV BBS. At first, this seemed like nothing unusual, as I had been involved in the Worcester-area BBS scene since 1985. Of course, things were not as they seemed. I had some prior Unix experience via a somewhat priviledged account on admit.wpi.edu. I don't mean priviledged in the root sense, I mean that I could irc and telnet with impunity. This allowed me to get my mandatory n-months-of-addiction-to-irc out of the way early on (summer of 1990)... But, I digress. Yes, GweepNet IV was a BBS, but I could sense there was something more to it than that. It was a community. Moreover, it was a community of people I could relate to. Thus, my appetite for unix hacking, connectivity, and such on a larger scale was whetted when I first started to use UnHackcess on GweepNet IV.

This early post from GweepNet IV BBS documents my first connection with the Gweeps (also worthy of note is my total lack of understanding of unix devices!):

Message-ID: 
Date: Tuesday, May 11, 1993 - 4:15 PM
From: FORD PREFECT
To: ALL
Subject: My introduction

Hey.. Check it out.. I finally got on to this place. I've been BBS'ing
since 1985, and I've been into computers since '84 or earlier, starting out
as an avid Atarian.  Many Ataris later, I switched over to IBM compatible
stuff in 1990, and have been with it since.  My current setup includes a
486DX2/66 machine, with all the trimmings (16 meg RAM, 200 meg drive space,
Pro Audio Spectrum, etc, etc)... I'm heavily into computers (programming,
hardware), and electronics.. I also collect music (I like stuff ranging
from jazz, to normal rock, to Floyd, Primus, Rush, Toad, and too many other
bands to list.. :) ), and I play bass guitar.. I'll be going to WPI in the
fall entering the ECE program, so don't expect to ever see me again after
that.. :)  .. Welp.  That should cover it.  Any other questions, mail me.
Flames to /dev/null/ ...
 
 Ford Prefect, Co-SysOp of Mithril Hall and Minority BBS.

From the time I first connected with the GweepNet IV BBS, I knew I wanted to do something similar. I had run several BBS's on my Atari 8-bit computer during various times from 1986 to 1988. I had the bug back then, but I had no idea what it would eventually mean. This post shows my early interest in creating a public-access unix machine:

Message-ID: 
Date: Wednesday, May 12, 1993 - 6:52 PM
From: FORD PREFECT
To: ANYONE WITH A PULSE
Subject: Finding a machine.

Hey.. Where can I find a machine such as the one this is running on?  Or
parts of said machine that can be put together?  I'm interested in hacking
something together to run a system off of for the summer.. Anyone have any
parts or anything they'd be willing to sell/donate to me? Any suggestions
where to look?
 
Thanks..
  
Steve

Some time would pass with little or no involvement, as I had my last summer of freedom before college began. The winter before college, I had somehow convinced my dad to let me upgrade my computer to the current bleeding-edge standard. I had on my hands a 486DX2/66MHz processor, 16MB of RAM, a 120MB IDE disk, a 340MB IDE disk, a 1MB ATI VGA card, a crisp Sony 14 inch monitor, and DOS. Sounds pretty pathetic by today's standards, but it was a great machine at the time. Needless to say, this is the machine I came to college with, and even some months later, it was still a respectable machine.

Fall 1993 [Year 0] - Meeting the Gweeps & Unix on my Mind

September 1993 - 486DX2/66, 16MB RAM, 445MB IDE disk, full tower case. First Linux installation. Machine not on network at this time.
June 1994 - First experiments with UUCP link to other parts of gweepnet.

Some time within my first week or two at WPI, I met Stephe (lancer). The details are a bit fuzzy, but he took me over to his place at Fruit St, and showed me his collection of computers and other gweepy sundries. Not long after that, he introduced me to Limey and Yeasah, who were a couple of shifty trouble-makers if I ever saw some. But, through some combination of Stephe, Limey and Yeasah, we got an installation of Linux running on my computer. The disks were borrowed from Tefler, and were an early SLS distribution. Everything, including X and emacs, fit on about 20 1.44MB diskettes.

Like any good gweep, I had started to play with X in the CCC, and having my very own X setup at home was something to die for. I recall Stephe and I beating on the Xconfig files and listening to Skinny Puppy and Einsturzende Neubauten until we got the X server up and running on my machine. Eventually, the machine was working well enough, and I began learning the intricacies of Linux and Unix in general. hoo_hah was born. I think the naming had something to do with Scent of a Woman, but it was a generic catch-phrase that I used at the time.

Keep in mind that my freshman year, the dorms were not wired for network access. Everyone that wanted to use the CCC's resources remotely did so via very small bank of dial-in modems. Hours of busy signals were not uncommon during finals week. Still, these modems only provided text-mode interaction. With my shiny new X display in my dorm room, I wanted more. At some point in the fall, Yeasah, Limey and I discovered a program called Term, which let you redirect X over a text-mode non-PPP connection. Of course, it was flaky and slow, but it was incredibly cool to be able to pop up an Xeyes running on, say, lizardo on to your dorm computer. Frustration with the lack of connectivity, and the desire for at least a LAN sparked the wiring-of-Institute-Hall escapade in the earliest months of 1994. This involved stringing ethernet cable (bought from WPI's own network guy -- coincidentally, the same guy who ran admit.wpi.edu, where I had my first real unix account) through the ceilings, walls, and out windows. In the end, about 12 machines were connected. Of course, I was the only one running Linux, and everyone else was using Windows for Workgroups 3.11. One of my co-conspirators, Jason Philbrook, ended up starting a Linux-based ISP called Midcoast a couple years later.

At any rate, as the fall progressed, I met much of Gweepco through Tefler and the SFS. I can't really remember how I met everyone, but by the middle of the fall, I had met most of the characters who hung out at 22 Lee Street. Nothing much happened for several months (other than lots of hanging out, MST3K, and Xuxa), then I killed hactar.. (sorry, Jer!) By this time, it was spring of 1994, and many a young gweep's hearts turned to the thoughts of connectivity.

Android created a newsgroup dedicated to discussion relating to our dreams of starting a small network. This is the first post from that newsgroup:

Newsgroups: gweepnet.networking
Path: hotblack!android
From: android@hotblack.schunix.dmc.com (Andrew J. Petrarca)
Subject: gweepnet.networking
Message-ID: 
Organization: GweepCo Corporate Headquarters, Worcester, Massachusetts
Date: Mon, 28 Feb 1994 22:36:12 GMT

For some time now, I've been hoping to form a small uucp network with other
hobbyists in worcester.  At the moment the only machines in "GweepNet" are
"hotblack," "hactar," (two feet away from hotblack, so it doesn't count) and
"jade," pogo's linux box (which hasn't been calling often enough to avoid
uucp jobs timing out...)

Stephe has mentioned that he'd like to get has atari into this act, and I
know Prof has just installed linux on his n86...  Come to think of it,
ford's got a linux box, too...  So if you guys want to do this, here's
gweepnet.networking...

--
Bitwise, android.                                         &
Newsgroups: gweepnet.networking
Path: hotblack!bbs
From: bbs@hotblack.schunix.dmc.com (FORD PREFECT)
Subject: Re: gweepnet.networking
Message-ID: 
To: android@hotblack.schunix.dmc.com (Andrew J. Petrarca)
Organization: GweepNet IV BBS
References: 
Date: Thu, 3 Mar 1994 07:03:34 GMT

Yes.
Yes.

Actually, I'd like to get j.random non-linux box to do the work, because if
I do it on something like the convergent, it'd stay in its OS .. my linux
box switches to (eww) dos sometimes to do some stuff.. and to keep the peons
(er, did i say that) on my dorm network happy ...

steve

(The reference to "dorm network" related to the illicit Institute Hall wiring escapade.)

Somewhere in this time frame (between April 23, 1994 and May 16, 1994), I had re-named my machine from hoo_hah to sidehack. All of the over-exposure to MST3K at 22 Lee Street gave me the idea to use an MST3K reference for my computer name, and The Sidehackers was one of my favorite episodes. Thus, sidehack was born.

I remember at some point, Profesor and I had an adventure installing phone wiring in his apartment on Lee Street.. All in the name of connectivity! (read the gweepnet.guest post about the wiring job)

For some brief period of time that spring, while I was back at my parents house, but before I found a summer sublet, we had the machines exchanging data. Of course, I moved and got distracted, and sidehack fell out of the UUCP loop for a while. I moved in with my friend Jaime Bozza (who ran a 12-line BBS called "Mithril Hall" out of, appropriately, our hall closet), and I recall not using Linux much on my machine that summer.

At some point as the fall grew closer, I was starting to gear up to get Linux re-installed and ready for what was to become the next great thing in my Gweep life.

The following email tells of falling off of the UUCP polling and of the impending re-installation of Linux (which, apparently now took about 50 floppies for a distribution - an early Slackware at this point):

Date: Tue, 19 Jul 1994 14:34:36 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Stephen S. Richardson" 
Subject: Re: Message from a Web user.
To: "Joseph Z. Provo" 
In-Reply-To: <199407191831.OAA21429@starbird.WPI.EDU>

re: sidehack

Yeah, it's been fairly offline lately.. I have to get an entirely new
version of Linux and re-install.. My drives are all changed around now,
and my Linux configs were sort of screwy to begin with.. I have to gather
up 50 or so disks, and head to a lab and ftp all day.. Or, if I'm
bringing my machine to campus so Amy (Plack) can use it for her Mosaic
presentation, I'll bring it a day early and ftp right to my drive....

I'm going to go on a big quest to find everything I need, get it
installed and compiled and such before school starts.. Also.. I'm going
to have to start giving some thought to my freenet setup... I'll probably
draft you for some help with ideas/implementations, etc..

Steve


Worcester Polytechnic Institute - ECE&CS--Class of 97 | prefect@wpi.wpi.edu
    Hardware Engineering Intern, Stratus Computer     | prefect@hw.stratus.com
   Linux - Keep the free flow of information alive    | root@sidehack.gweep.net

   "To defy the laws of tradition is a crusade only of the brave" - Primus
Joe Provo replied with an amusing message:
From: "Joseph Z. Provo" 
Date: Tue, 19 Jul 1994 14:37:51 -0400
To: prefect@WPI.EDU
Subject: Re: Message from a Web user.

draft me! draft me!  pretend I'm an RFC!

Fall 1994 [Year 1] - Sidehack Goes Online.

August 1994 - 486DX2/66, 16MB RAM, 445MB IDE disk, full tower case (not 100% dedicated - sometimes rebooted to Windows). Machine goes up on WPI residential hall network. Will stay on WPI network for almost 3 years.
January 1995 - 486DX/33, 8MB RAM, 1GB SCSI disk, two NE2000 ethernet cards, monster tower (two motherboards, one dedicated to server)
March 1995 - 486DX/33, 8MB RAM, 1GB + 200M SCSI disk, desktop case
July 1995 - disk crash, lost 200M disk.

Great news came that summer when I learned that WPI would be offering ethernet in the dorms, for 200 dollars a year. This was what sparked the idea to have a publicly-accessible machine running from my dorm room.

The following email shows my interest in providing access not unlike Hotblack, but with much more interactive capability due to a persistent network connection:

Date: Tue, 19 Jul 1994 14:45:33 -0400 (EDT)
From: "Stephen S. Richardson" 
Subject: Re: Massage from a Web user.
To: "Joseph Z. Provo" 
In-Reply-To: <199407191837.OAA05522@graywacke.WPI.EDU>

Heh.. :> Well, what I'm looking at now is getting an extra phone line and
putting a modem up on it... I'll be willing to provide UUCP accounts
(mail/news) for donations (like $10 a person would cover things pretty
well.. the line will cost me $200, and I'm going to spend around $250 and
get a 28.8 modem since my 14.4 is on its last leg).. I'm also thinking
about putting up a gweepnet-esque BBS, or simply providing shell accounts
to a few people.. I think the BBS idea would be cool, because it would be
able to be access from the net.. I've got some other concerns though..
I'd like to come up with a machine to use as a firewall/BBS machine,
because my current system often switches between DOS and Linux when I'm
doing school work.. Though, I suppose if I found a good enough suite of
tools for Linux, I could stay there.. I'll have to see what happens..

Steve, very bored at work.


Worcester Polytechnic Institute - ECE&CS--Class of 97 | prefect@wpi.wpi.edu
    Hardware Engineering Intern, Stratus Computer     | prefect@hw.stratus.com
   Linux - Keep the free flow of information alive    | root@sidehack.gweep.net

   "To defy the laws of tradition is a crusade only of the brave" - Primus
So, late summer rolled around, and I managed to reinstall Linux on the 486DX2/66. I was to move in to Founders 402 with Limey, Yeasah, and Pat McManus, all great Linux/Unix geeks in their own rights -- and were, from my perspective, the 'original' inhabitants of the now-famous Founders 411 suite.

I managed to convince Residential Life to let me move back in early. In doing so, I became the first student to successfully connect on to the new WPI residential hall network. After a short time of playing with configuration files (with the help of Greg Shapiro from the CCC, who actually came over to help me configure some parts of my system), sidehack was up and running.

Limey, Tefler, Gryphon, and Jer were among the first gweeps with accounts on the machine. (historical note: while there are UIDs from 400-421 on sidehack, the first accounts actually started at 500. I don't know what happened to 500 or 501, though...) I distinctly remember Joe Provo logging on from the newly-formed UltraNet. Shortly after the machine went up, I installed a web server and several other services. Sidehack was not a dedicated server at this point, as I had to reboot to Windows to do work for some of my classes on occasion. [original web server graphic]

Around the 7th of October, 1994, the processor was upgraded to a then-new Intel i486DX4/100. Shortly thereafter, the motherboard and video card were upgraded to support Vesa Local Bus. Additionally, a 1GB disk found in the trash in the sub-basement of Fuller Labs came online with a SCSI card borrowed from Tefler. This was a pretty respectable amount of disk space, especially considering it was free.

[monster tower photo] Since WPI has the annoying policy of kicking students out of the dorms for Xmas break, sidehack was shut down. However, the plan was to bring it back up after break on its own dedicated machine, thus eliminating the problems with booting to Windows, and crashing the machine when I used X. Not only would it be a dedicated machine, but it would be the MEGA-PC, envisioned in a conversation with Stephe perhaps as long as a year before. This machine, a completely custom-made dual-motherboarded 120lb behemoth was built into the chassis of a dead Sun 3/160 that I got from the CS department. I brought this monster online as soon as I could get back in to the dorms. This gave sidehack its own dedicated 486DX/33MHz motherboard with a whopping 8MB of RAM. The 1GB SCSI disk, and my old 120MB IDE disk were used for storage. A pair of NE2000 ethernet cards were used, one to connect to the WPI network, and one to connect to the other motherboard, the Intel 486DX4/100 motherboard. This machine was named barbedwire, and ran Linux and Windows, depending on what I needed to do. Ironically, and somewhat intentionally, the new monster chassis was originally the same kind of machine that hactar had been kluged into. (For whatever reason, it, too, was a mutant and not in its original MitiFrame case)

Unfortunately, the machine proved to be pretty flaky, as Jer and I discovered the afternoon when we were trying to get it up and running. After we eventually got it going, I soon discovered that it was pretty inconvenient to have both machines crammed in to one case that I could barely lift by myself. Some time thereafter, I bought a pair of PC cases, and things were back to being a little more normal. Some time thereafter, another 200M SCSI disk was added.

A few months passed, and many more accounts were added. Sidehack became a sort of invite-only place to hang out. Its user base started to extend beyond the core GweepCo crowd, but everyone got along, and there were no scuffles. Sidehack started to become a place you could hang out to read news, talk to people, etc., especially if you no longer had a WPI account. Access to WPI newsgroups was one of the biggest draws at the time.

At some point that winter, I set up a 14.4Kbps dial-up modem on sidehack, giving people dial-in access to the internet. This was, at the time, a very exciting thing. ISPs were just starting to take off, and most people didn't have home internet access if they weren't a college student. This allowed much of the GweepCo crowd that had left WPI to have a live-internet session from home.

That spring, I was working on an independent study project to build a PC-based audio controller for doing theatre sound. It was Linux-based, and networkable such that several computers could be combined to increase your overall sound control capability. This led to an approximately two week period where sidehack and barbedwire were up for only a few hours a day, when I had them plugged in to the campus network in Alden Hall. During the shows, the network cable to the outside world was unplugged. At night, the machines were off, and stored in the Lens and Lights office.

This experience clearly showed that there was a great desire for sidehack to be up all the time. Several issues arose. First, summer was arriving, and that meant I wouldn't be living in the dorms. I knew I would be back in Founders the following fall, so connectivity at that point was secured. However, this potentially left the summer as a period with no access. Fortunately, my workstudy boss and the CCC agreed to let me keep my machines on the network, in my office in Fuller Labs. This was a real turning point in terms of keeping the machine up and running as much as humanly possible.

Fall 1995 [Year 2] - Sidehack Grows Up, Raises A Family

August 1995 - 486DX/33, 8MB RAM, 540MB IDE disk
September 1995 - 486DX/33, 20MB RAM, 860MB IDE disk, 3Com 3C509 ethernet card.. separate news server: Sun 3/60, 12MB RAM, 200 meg SCSI disk
February 1996 - news server migrates to Sun SPARCstation IPC, 12MB RAM, 1.2 gig SCSI disk, insane rack of hardware.

That summer, I was hired by the still-young UltraNet, as a programmer and generally-useful-guy. This meant having something of an income, well above the paltry work-study wages I was used to. This meant I could plan a sort of upgrade path for sidehack. First, the klugy dual-ethernet scheme to give barbedwire access had to go. I bought an 8-port ethernet hub to alleviate these problems. (Consequently, I became the first student to have a hub and multiple machines running on a single port in their dorm room) Additionally, I bought a 450VA UPS to keep sidehack up during power fluctuations. Additionally, more RAM was needed, and fortunately came via a loan of some memory (again, by Tefler). This brought sidehack up to 20MB of RAM. The SCSI controller, which had been borrowed since the previous fall, went back to its owner, and a much older, flakier card was donated in return. This card was used for a couple of weeks, until it was discovered that it was corrupting the data on the drive. The final clinching factor was that a SCSI cable was accidentally knocked off of the chain, causing the 200MB disk to fail in a big way. This led to the purchase of a pair of 540MB IDE disks, one of which became sidehack's only disk. After this flurry of upgrades, downgrades, crashes, changes, and repairs, a new, rock-solid sidehack emerged in the fall of 1995. Slackware Linux was still the OS and distribution of choice.

The modem dialup was, for the most part, offline. However, I did keep a modem in the machine, and connected it to the telephone line in my office. This allowed me to dial in and use PPP from home. Also, a select few gweeps were allowed to use the line to dial in and log on. The underground nature of this was mostly because of the potential trouble I could have had with the campus telecom department, or the CS department. Fortunately, the use went undetected.

A major performance break came when I purchased a surplus Sun 3/60 workstation from the CS department. This machine became the dedicated news server. It ran an ancient version of SunOS, only had 12MB of memory and 200MB of disk, but it was a real workstation. A few weeks in to the school year, sidehack, barbedwire, and manos, the new Sun, were happily running, connected with the new hub, and protected by the UPS. Yet more accounts were added, bringing the total number of accounts that fall to somewhere around 60. Perhaps 1/3 of those were fairly active users. Many were occasional, but a new community was definitely shaping up.

Sidehack showed then-unprecendented reliability during this period. That little 486/33 motherboard was incredibly robust, and the system hardly ever crashed. I can only recall one upgrade that fall, which was adding an additional 340MB of disk, due to the demands placed on the machine with all of the user accounts.

Things were settled and pretty stable for a period of time. manos was handling news properly, people were logging in to sidehack, and I was being disgusted with the then-new Windows 95 on barbedwire. Then, one day, a conversation with my roommate Mike Sanders brought about some new changes.

[Founders 410, afternoon, late fall 1995. Mike comes into the suite with an SGI Indy box over his shoulder. I'm sitting on the couch.]

me: "What's in the box, Mike?"

Mike: "a few SPARCs."

me: "Sure Mike, what's in the box?"

Mike: "No, really. I got three SPARC IPC chassis for free. They were being thrown out by the Mechanical Engineering department... Something about grant money, and they couldn't sell them. No disk or RAM, and the wires are cut, but they're SPARCs!"

[sidehack, beatnik, et al photo] Through some convincing, and offering to reconnect all of the cut wiring and obtain SunOS install media and a Sun CD drive, Mike gave me one of the SPARC IPCs. Thus, beatnik was born. Beatnik started out with a 200MB boot disk, the old salvaged 1GB disk, 12MB of RAM, the stock bwtwo framebuffer, and no head. Shortly after it was up and running, news service was transferred from manos, which now seemed to be incredibly decrepit compared to the sleek new IPC. Manos didn't do much of anything from that point on, and was eventually sold to someone I know in Rhode Island.

The 486/IPC sidehack/beatnik duo served for quite some time. The Founders 410 suite reached critical mass with something like 22 running computers (and only four human occupants). It was difficult to sit anywhere, except the bathroom, without having at least one screen pointing at you. Other hacks, such as the motion sensor/door sensor, and web-based message board that popped up people's sayings on a screen in our living room, filled much of the time while sidehack and beatnik chugged away. The months passed quickly. Xmas break passed with sidehack and beatnik in my office in Fuller Labs. Spring came soon, and again, the machines were moved to Fuller. This had the added bonus that air conditioning, power conditioning, and security were all for free.

Again, I spent the summer working at UltraNet, which had become quite a bit larger by that point. Many gweeps were now employed there. One day, we were all introduced to the DEC Multia, a small, "personal" Alpha workstation, by the illustrious Jon Hartford. These boxes were available on the surplus market for fairly cheap (800 bucks at the time), and sported 24 MB of RAM, 2MB video, SCSI, ethernet, and a small SCSI drive in one tiny package. Several UltraNet employees, and indeed, UltraNet itself, purchased many of these machines. A $17,000 order was placed, and a few of us drove up to New Hampshire to pick them up, to help alleviate the Alpha-fever many of us were suffering from. The good news about these boxes, other than the price, was that they ran a port of Linux, and they seemed like likely candidates for small servers like sidehack.

Fall 1996 [Year 3] - I Knew "Alpha" Meant Something...

August 1996 - server upgraded to: DEC Alpha Multia 166MHz, 24MB RAM, 3.1 gig SCSI disk replaced old reliable 486/33
September 1996 - Alpha upgraded to 48MB RAM
February 1997 - news server decommissioned due to unreliability of SPARC Linux
May 1997 - main server moved off of WPI's network.
June 1997 - Alpha decommissioned: replaced with full-sized tower AMD K5/100MHz, 32MB RAM, 2.9 gig SCSI disk, 1.6 gig IDE disk, Exabyte 8mm SCSI tape backup, IBM 2x SCSI CDROM, 3Com 3C509 ethernet card.

So, I blew what savings I had on a Multia and a surplus 2.9GB SCSI drive. RedHat Linux was the only port available at the time, so the choice was obvious. By mid-August, the machine had been mostly configured and tested. It seemed somewhat flaky, but this was mostly written off to small kernel bugs and the like. The plan was to bring the new Alpha up in place of the 486 when I moved in to the dorms (this time Founders 411 -- funny how that place comes up again..). This, for the most part, worked. The user data were copied over from the 486, and the Alpha was online. There were several nagging problems with the box, but it was somewhat stable. Most annoying was that sendmail would not work properly on it, so qmail, another free mta, was used to replace sendmail. In mid-September, the memory was upgraded to 48MB. One or two failed attempts to upgrade to a newer version of RedHat/AXP resulted in nothing but frustration and slight downtime.

At that point, I had mistakenly thought RedHat was a good distribution. They had released a SPARC version, and had started with an Intel distribution. To keep things simple (so the theory went), I installed RedHat Linux on my personal machine, and on the SPARC, which was still doing news. RedHat/Intel proved to be relatively stable, but it caused the SPARC to crash several times a day. This seemed to be related to heat somehow, but no hard evidence was ever gathered. Eventually, the news service was consolidated onto the Alpha, and the flaky RedHat/SPARC install retired. Somewhere around this time, beatnik acquired a cg3 color framebuffer and a color monitor. It became a nice X tube, which complemented my personal PC which ran NT/95. These boxes, along with the old 486/33 that used to be sidehack, became my MQP development machines.

From the Fall of 1996 until early Spring of 1997, sidehack forged on steadily, limping here and there due to annoying problems with the Linux/AXP combination. At some point, probably in December of 1996, a newer version of RedHat came out, and for once, the installation worked. This solved some problems, but created others.

[DEC Multia Photo] Spring of 1997 marked the end of my last full year at WPI, and thus the three-year span of running sidehack in dorm rooms and my office was about to be over. With only E term remaining, I had to come up with another way to keep sidehack up. For a brief period, it was unknown whether the machine would be taken down forever, or remain up.

As luck would have it, Joe Provo still worked at UltraNet. Another fellow, who we'll call "Dwight" (because that's his name) lived downstairs from Joe, and also worked at UltraNet. Dwight had an ISDN line installed, and welcomed Joe to share it. One Spring evening, Joe and I ran ethernet cabling through various and sundry holes, floors, walls, and cracks, to connect the two Fruit Street apartments together. With this task completed, sidehack was brought over from Founders, and was up and running outside of the confines of the WPI network for the first time ever. Nothin' but net.

[sidehack : no forklifts! photo] Not too long after the move (and several annoying reboots), I came to the realization that sidehack on the Alpha was just not going to cut it for any longer, and I grudgingly decided to replace it. The only machine I had available to me was my few-month-old AMD K5/100 machine, which was my main PC. There wasn't much time to explore options, and I was an unemployed college student, so I did what I had to, and sacrificed my personal machine. It was outfitted with the alpha's old 2.9GB SCSI disk, a 1.6GB IDE disk, 32MB of RAM, and another free SCSI card donated by Dan Martins, the new server was brought online in June of 1997. This time, we were back to good 'ol Slackware Linux, which had worked so well on "old reliable," the 486/33.

Unfortunately, for reasons still unknown, this machine wasn't particularly stable either. It ran well most of the time, but would completely bomb out on SCSI errors every so often. We were able to live with this machine for quite a while, though, as it was a lot less flaky than the Alpha was.

In July of 1997, I had an ISDN line installed at my apartment at 38 Bowdoin Street, and briefly moved sidehack home again. This would have been the ultimate setup, but it was not destined to last. NYNEX (now Bell Atlantic), in very traditional style, completely bottched the billing up. Phone bills for $1200 to $1700 were appearing monthly, and only after hours of phone calls and worrying were they fixed. Back to Joe's apartment went sidehack, and there it's stayed for quite some time.

Fall 1997 [Year 4] - Stability At Last

December 1997 - main server upgraded to Intel Pentium 166MHz MMX, 64MB 60ns RAM, 4.3 gig IDE disk, Intel EtherExpress PCI 10/100B ethernet card, medium tower case.
January 11, 1998 - memory in main server upgraded to 96MB 60ns EDO

In December of 1997, I again grew annoyed with the unreliability problems with the machine. By this time, I had graduated from WPI and had a Real Job (tm), so I could afford some new hardware. A nearly brand-new Intel Pentium 166MHz MMX PC, with a brand new 4.3GB IDE disk, a bran' spankin' new Intel EtherExpress 10/100MB ethernet card, and a smaller case was deployed. This time, Linux had been abandoned entirely, in favor of another free unix, FreeBSD. Shortly after deploying it, it received a huge boost in RAM, to 96MB, thanks to Jer. To date, this has been the only hardware that is as stable as the old 486/33. As of this writing, it's still running happily on this hardware. *knock on wood*

Of course, sidehack's user base grew considerably over the years. Currently, there are about 140 user accounts, well over 70% of which are active. The user base is quite diverse, with group of core users being mostly traditional GweepCo people, but also several other friends and acquantances of mine and other people. It's grown to become a very comfortable, useful, and friendly environment. I call it my online home.

Fall 1998 [Year 5] - The uneventful years

June 13, 1999 - memory in main server upgraded to 128MB PC100 SDRAM. Additional 10 gig IDE disk added on second IDE channel.

Ask a sysadmin about an uneventful system, and they will tell you of happiness. Sidehack chugs along fearlessly, seeing an average of 35-40 people logged in all day during the week. Uptimes range from 3-6 months and beyond. The only downtimes are scheduled maintenance periods.

Fall 1999 [Year 6]

November 27, 1999 - Main server upgraded to dual Pentium Pro 200MHz (512K cache CPUs), new 16 gigabyte IDE disk on primary IDE channel, old 10 gigabyte IDE disk on secondary IDE channel. Machine has 256MB of RAM and a Bay Networks/Lite-On PNIC 10/100 ethernet card. Fitted into the Zeos case that housed the K5. Original power supply had a severe meltdown when we were bringing up the machine, so it was replaced with a new 250W supply. Unfortunately that 250W supply suffered another meltdown on April 21, 2000. The P6DNE motherboard reportedly has a problem with its power connector, so it will be replaced soon.
April 23, 2000 Main server temporarily running on an AMD K5/450 while old Dual machine takes a long rest in the shop.

Fall 2000 [Year 7]

January 28, 2001 Main server moved back to a new dual Pentium Pro motherboard, two 200MHz (512K cache) processrs, 512MB EDO DRAM (8x64MB) new IBM 20GB IDE disk, new IBM 40GB IDE disk, Intel EtherExpress 10/100 ethernet, Promise UDMA/66 IDE controller, Zeos case (with modifications), 400 Watt power supply.

Fall 2001 [Year 8]

April/May 2002 Main server moved to Intel C440GX server-class dual Xeon motherboard with two 450MHz/1MB Xeons, 512MB RAM, PC Power & Cooling 475 watt power supply (24 pin ATX + 6pin aux for C440GX), 3Ware Escalade 3W-6410 4 channel IDE RAID5, four IBM 60GB 7200RPM IDE disks (3 for RAID5, 1 hot spare), 6 gig IDE disk for swap & tmp. Built into the world's heaviest steel server case. Lots of custom cooling for hard disk array.
Dual PPro->Dual Xeon Transition Day

Fall 2002 [Year 9]

Some time in 2002/2003 PC Power & Cooling supply failure. Replaced with Antec 550W.
Winter 2003 (?) Disk failure. Switched to hot spare.
Spring 2003 (?) Hot spare disk failure.
April/May 2003 (?) Main server upgraded to MSI 694D Pro dual Socket 370 motherboard, two Pentium III 933MHz CPUs, 2GB of Crucial PC133 memory, and remaining parts from previous machine. Replaced two of the blown IBM disks with Seagate Barracuda IV disks.

Fall 2003 [Year 10]

A word of thanks...

Sidehack would not be what it is today without the contributions of time, money, and computer hardware from lots of people. The crack sysadmin staff, consisting of Jer, Joe Provo, myself, and occasionally Android, Lizzie, and other folks, have kept things running over the years. Originally it started out as my machine, but it quickly grew to become our machine. Almost everyone contributes something, and there has always been a laid back balance to everything. I won't go as far as to say it runs itself, but things are taken care of because people care, and take the time to do things right. Lots of others have donated money to help pay for phone bills, upgrades, repairs, etc. Many others have donated or let me borrow hardware to keep the machine going (or so that I could use one of my other machines). So, in closing, to everyone -- thanks for helping make sidehack what it is today. It's my hope to keep it up for as long as I possibly can. Like I said, it's my home.

               -- Steve Richardson
	          prefect@gweep.net
		  
		  29 May 1998

 
 
Page last modified:
Copyright © 1993-2003 prefect - All Rights Reserved.