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A teenage aspiring SysOp in the age of the text-only BBS

Terms such as BBS and SysOp are in the history books, but do you know why?
Looking back at the BBS and the SysOp
Image by Bernhard Renner from Pixabay

This is our world now… the world of the electron and the switch, the beauty of the baud.
The Mentor

In the dial-up days

There was a time that some of us can still remember, a time before fast networks ruled the industry, when connection speeds over 1mbps were considered blazing fast, and most of us lived on 9600 baud. In those days, a simple graphic could take minutes to download, and because of this, everything was still primarily text-based.

This was when I got into "computer things." I was a young teenager in 1993 when my dad brought home his first PC—a Gateway 2000 486/SX with a whopping 4MB of RAM, and a whole 320MB hard drive. It ran MS-DOS 6.21 and Windows (for workgroups) 3.11.

In those days, computers just weren't that fast. That little 486 had trouble running Doom; forget about the multimedia experience that is today's internet. So, the majority of what you could do online was text. On top of that, the internet was still a very new thing, and not everyone could get access to it. Broadband was not a thing. Couple that with the fact that my dad was a telco guy, and knew that the internet was pretty much the wild west at the time—I wasn't allowed anywhere near it. That, however, just made me want to explore it that much more.

Sometime after the Telegraph

Before the internet was available to me, I'd learned about Bulletin Board Systems (BBS). These were standalone systems, usually in someone's basement or bedroom, running specialized BBS software. You could connect to these systems directly over a phone line. In a lot of ways, these systems were the birthplace of the commodity internet, even if nobody remembers them. A SysOp (System Operator) was the person who operated the BBS. Their job was to make sure the thing was running, and in most cases, they were also the person responsible for building it. Some BBSs had a team of folks running them, and they charged a fee for the use of the BBS; these systems usually had modem banks that allowed several people to dial in at once. This is what really intrigued me—multi-user communication. It's what led me into this field. As a teenager, while my peers were playing football or getting into dating girls, I was fascinated by computer communication. I wanted to BE a SysOp.

These BBSs facilitated online gaming—before MMOs, we had MUD; before Words With Friends, we had Crosswordz; before we had Xbox Live, we had The Game Connection. I lost track of the number of hours I spent in the fictitious world of Tele-Arena, battling aliens in TradeWars 2002, and playing up to four-player Doom deathmatches through Game Connection. Even after I finally got reliable access to the internet, I still kept coming back to that BBS. It all eventually had to end, though. In late 1999, the BBS I called home, and one of the few still in operation locally, Cyberspace 7 (CS7), suffered a power surge, frying its Galactibox (the modem bank they depended on for multi-line dial-in). Interest in BBSs was dwindling, except for enthusiasts like myself, so instead of resurrecting the board in a telnet-only fashion, they took one last tape backup and powered the system down.

In the realm of digital privateering

The software CS7 ran was written by a company called Galacticomm. It was called The Major BBS, and later, Worldgroup. I had toyed with pirated copies of the board and some of the games I loved, but what I really wanted was a legal copy that I could run my very own BBS with. I wanted to fill the void for my friends, the community I'd been a part of, by bringing up something just like CS7, so we could all continue to battle orcs and minotaurs or defend the space lanes. It was all so expensive, though. I couldn't afford Worldgroup—I think it was selling for thousands at the time, and I was just barely an adult. I didn't have any significant income, and expensive proprietary software was just out of my reach. So I kept scratching the itch on a very small scale with my pirated copy of the board, never making it public enough to catch anyone's attention. The ownership of Worldgroup got really murky for a while there, and I never knew if some behemoth of a company was going to try to track me down for running a pirated BBS.

Then one day, a few years after CS7 had vanished, I got an email from one of the other enthusiasts that I'd kept in touch with. He'd been in touch with the old SysOp of CS7, and he'd worked out a deal to sell the whole shebang. The problem was, he couldn't afford it alone, so he wanted someone to go in on it with him. He thought it'd be a few hundred dollars, and in my head, it sounded like something I could pretty easily split. He needed me to go visit the old SysOp; he ran this computer shop in a nearby town (and he still does as far as I know). So, one day on my lunch break, I drove over and paid him a visit. He gave me a box of stuff—floppies, hardware, CDs, all kinds of manuals—and told me to go through it and let him know what I thought it was worth. I took it, and after a few days and some conversations with my buddy, we decided to offer a few hundred bucks. I did, but never heard back from the guy, even after several follow-ups. To top it off, my buddy never even coordinated with me to get copies of the stuff we'd gotten. So I had it all—the BBS install software, the software collections that they had hosted with it, and, most of all, that last tape backup.

The return to SysOp Utopia

I gave the whole situation time to settle, and after a few months went by and no one involved in this "sale" ever responded to me, I decided it was mine and got to work. A friend of mine was able to restore four out of the five backup tapes, which gave me a broken copy of the BBS to try to fix. I had my pirated board to use as a source from which to replace missing files, and after an overnight hack-a-thon, I had a working BBS again. It was up and running under the registration of the now-defunct Cyberspace 7 information. I renamed the board to the name I'd chosen for my pirated board, The Underground BBS, and my life as a SysOp began.

The landscape had changed; BBSs were all basically nostalgia systems for folks like me who wanted to play the games they'd played as a kid. There was no more dial-up; it was all done over telnet. Most of the companies that were making games and add-ons for The Major BBS had rolled up their carpets and either moved on to better things or just went belly-up. The mastermind behind The Major BBS had died several years earlier, and Galacticomm sort of vanished. I ran The Underground BBS for several years and had a number of regular users who showed up to play Tele-Arena, mainly. Eventually, though, with regular users dwindling, and my own life getting more hectic as my career and family grew, The Underground BBS was shut down.

Nostalgia ain't what it used to be

There is a new hope, though. A fellow by the name of Rick "Questman" invested a considerable amount of his own money and time to track down and purchase the rights to many of the old software that made these BBSs popular—Tele-Arena, Trade Wars 2002, and even Worldgroup itself. He and several enthusiasts like myself are now involved in "The Major BBS Restoration Project," which is an effort to modernize the Worldgroup code base, rebrand it back to The Major BBS, and then make it something that folks can start building communities with again. It's slow-moving but pretty exciting. There's currently a Facebook group, a private Slack workspace, and even a message forum that you can join! If reading this article has inspired you to get involved, please reach out. The more excited developers we can get around this project, the better.

I hope this trip down memory lane has been interesting. I've thought about rekindling The Underground BBS a few times. I have a backup of all of its data just sitting around in an archive somewhere. Maybe one day, it will be reborn on this updated codebase, and we can all get together and dart the sorceress.

[ Scouting for your next role in a post-BBS world? Check out this free cheat sheet: IT job interview tips. ]

Topics:   Sysadmin culture  
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Nathan Lager

Nate is a Technical Account Manager with Red Hat and an experienced sysadmin with 20 years in the industry.  He first encountered Linux (Red Hat 5.0) as a teenager, after deciding that software licensing was too expensive for a kid with no income, in the late 90’s.  Since then he’s run More about me

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