Alierak (alierak) wrote,

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ChaoticMUX prehistory, part 1

Yesterday I started writing up a prehistory of ChaoticMUX, from my point of view. I'm having trouble remembering this stuff these days, and thought it might be useful to start writing it down. For those of you who care, this first part covers the crufty old Sun4.

Summer of 1996, living in Random Hall at MIT. Jen's SCA friend Alex
had lost his Athena account in January when he changed jobs. He now
worked at that other school, but still wanted to hang out and log in
at MIT, where he was still active in the SCA. His friend Mike loaned
him an old Sun 4/260 to hack on, and I loaned him some space to work
on it in my dorm room. An 80-pound VME monstrosity with about a 1600W
power supply. It came with SunOS on a gigantic external disk, and a
crate full of random expansion boards. We knew nothing about the
machine, let alone unix administration.

Side note. Some people, when in the presence of a child, will turn
their attention to the child and without really thinking about it,
just start playing, teaching, protecting and nurturing as if it were
the only thing in the world to do. I'm not one of those people. But in
the presence of a computer...

Within a week I'd figured out how to boot it single-user and normally,
how to get around in SunOS and the boot monitor, how to make it
unbootable by moving /sbin to a different partition, how to restore it
by lugging the disk over to a friend's place and connecting it to his
Sun 3/260 one night. I'd observed that I had to turn off my A/C and
warn my neighbor to shut off his A/C when I turned the machine
on, else trip the circuit breaker (can you say fsck? A 4/260 runs at
17MHz), so I had to plan to move the machine out of my dorm room and
upstairs into a lounge.

At that point I started to think about how I could make the machine
useful (or at least less annoying) to people who shared the lounge
space. First I decided the huge disk had to go. I found a SCSI card in
the crate of extra boards, clipped some wires from the power supply to
connect a modern 4-pin power connector, and borrowed a modest SCSI
disk from somewhere. About 250 megs, I think.

We didn't trust the crufty old SunOS on the external disk, and didn't
really know how to go about transferring it to the SCSI disk anyway,
so it was time to figure out how to install an OS.

Alex wanted to use the machine to experiment with NetBSD, since he
knew smart people who worked on NetBSD and it was free, so that's what
we used. It took several tries to understand the installation
instructions and get it into a reasonable state. We had no idea what
would be useful for partition sizes or anything, since both of us had
only seen unix from the user side. It took over a day to build emacs,
and I think we gave up on building a new version of gcc.

When we knew we were done with the external disk, it went back to
Mike's workshop storage, and the 4/260 went into the lounge. At some
point I even got Xwindows working on one of those big black-and-white
Sun monitors, but it was a real cpu and memory hog. We continued to
use Alex's old Mac SE/30 as a serial console, meanwhile he bought a
pair of 16-meg memory boards (VME boards, about 16 inches square)
online somewhere.

I was getting used to the role of sysadmin, and people were happily
able to use the machine for checking their mail and such, one at a
time, logging in with local accounts and then telnetting to campus
machines. I also obtained a couple of pizza box Sun 3's and figured
out how to netboot them as xterminals from chaotic. One was called
stochastic (which IIRC actually lived in the VME chassis along with
chaotic, since the Sun 3/60 board only used the power pins on the VME
bus), and the other was called arbitrary, I think. I remember being
annoyed that someone in a frat house had already registered

[I think this next bit might have only happened later on, in 1997]

I made a couple of trips over to visit the one working NetBSD/sparc
Athena workstation (deathtongue, in the SIPB office, if anyone cares)
and by trial and error eventually managed to identify the interesting
files that made it Athena-like. I would copy files to my Athena
account, and then go home and download them via ftp. I think I
eventually got telnet or ftp privileges on deathtongue though, because
I really don't remember this taking more than a couple trips. I
probably also found some of the necessary files in the SIPB's afs

With some fiddling, it eventually became possible to log in to an
Athena account on chaotic either on the serial console or by telnetting
in. It turned out not to be possible to provide an Athena X login though,
since the Athena version of xdm (or was it xlogin?) made assumptions
about the display and wouldn't support the xterminals.
Tags: mit, mux, toys

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