I was a freshman at Cornell University in Fall of 1992 when I logged into my first UNIX system.
I’d heard of UNIX before, of course—it was a popular subject in trade magazines of the period, and if you tinkered with computers you’d probably have heard of it—but I’d never actually used it. So one day I marched over to the campus IT department to register for a UNIX account. It took some wrangling, but very shortly I was drinking from the UNIX firehose.
Compared to a lot of other schools, Cornell’s UNIX cluster was small and under-powered. Resources were scarce. The whole campus had to share four DECstation 5000s running ULTRIX with home partitions mounted over NFS, so they actively discouraged new users. I don’t remember the specs (you can use your imagination) but I do remember how laggy things got when there were 30 or so users logged into each system. We called this cluster “The Cruxen”, because the systems were named crux1, crux2, crux3, and crux4.
The thing that made this cluster special was not the hardware or the software; it was the community that formed around it. By mid-1993, a great many of my friends had accounts on the Cruxen, and it didn’t take long for the cluster to become a place to meet, talk, share ideas, and kvetch. One of the most common ways to talk to each other was the UNIX utility write, which allowed you to send a short one or two line message to a user logged in on another terminal—long before the term ‘instant messanger’ had been coined, we were doing it on UNIX. We used last and finger to see when someone had last logged in, and to watch for them to log in again. For more immediate, longer-form communication, we used talk to connect two terminals together and watch each other type back and forth. And of course there was always e-mail, and Usenet, a global network of hundreds of computer bulletin boards covering every subject under the sun. The Cruxen were a social network, as surely as Facebook is today.
Really, it was more than a social network. It was a Social Network++, a fully programmable social network. Interesting projects sprang up on the Cruxen. It was easy to share scripts and coding projects back and forth when everyone had access to the same filesystems, programming languages, and tools. Of course sometimes disasters happened, but they were rare. Once, a friend built a distributed queue manager for POVray rendering, so that all the Cruxen could render an animation frame in parallel. He did not leave enough idle time, and ended up taking down the whole system. I myself once almost took it down by seeing what would happen if I created a .forward file that forwarded email to myself (discovery: it formed an infinite loop and quickly filled up the mail spool, bringing upon me the wrath of the admins). It was immense fun, and we felt like we were on the cutting edge.
But the fact is, we were late to the game. This scene had already been played out many times and in many places. From the late 1960s onward, big multi-user computer systems were places where people could form communities, whether running MULTICS or TOPS-20 or ITS or UNIX or VMS. This sort of thing was common-place in those environments. By the time we found the Cruxen in the early 1990s, the timesharing experience was already on the wane. By 2000, it was largely a thing of the past. Desktop computers that could do everything the UNIX cluster could do were cheap and readiliy available, and there was no need for a shared environment any more. Each of us now computes alone.
Is there any way to recapture this sort of experience? Yes! One of the oldest and best known is the SDF Public Access UNIX System. They’ve been in business since 1987, so they have considerable experience providing a UNIX cluster environment to thousands of users.
More recently, Paul Ford (@ftrain on Twitter) created an accidental phenomenon when he launched tilde.club, a place to build and share web pages on a plain-old UNIX box, just like we did back in the ’90s when the World Wide Web was young and new and we ran with Perl scissors.
And, finally, there’s my own brand new project, RetroNET, whose goal is to give a Cruxen-like experience to hackers and tinkerers and makers.
We can never go back to the days when we had to use a cluster to get our work done, nor would I want to. But we can still recapture some of the feel of that time, and I think we can still do good things with it here in the 21st century. So, whether you’ve used a UNIX system before or not, whether you lived through that time or you didn’t, I encourage you to at least give it a try. You never know who you’ll meet, or what you’ll learn.