Sunday, April 9, 2023

Not Even Not Zen 300: Biomythography - Note 50, Harbingers of Doom

Biomythography, Note 50

Harbingers of Doom

"How do you feel about a consulting gig?"

I'd just picked up my office phone at Hood College. Those words were the first Adam said to me after 'hello.'
Both of us had taken side jobs before and we'd talked about getting more of them. It was more often a theoretical concept, though. We wanted extra work because neither of us were making enough. We needed money to feed the kids and the mortgages. But we were busy with our main jobs, too. Looking for other activities took more time than usually we had. His invitation to hustle as a consultant seemed alarmingly sudden. At the same time, I appreciated how he was getting right down to business.

"What's the deal?" I asked. My gaze wandered around my darkened room in the server center. I imagined where Adam was, he had gotten a non-profit connection to a tedious art task, or a session of cable-pulling to network computers together with Novell, or maybe a writing assignment no one else wanted.

"I want to get Usenet into my office," he said. "And email. And a web server."

This was going to be totally different than I thought. Huh.
"That's a pretty big project. And it's in your own office?" He was talking about three sizable setup plans. I'd built a few web servers at a time when hardly anyone had done it. Folks were just getting to know what the 'web' was. On the other hand, I hadn't configured a mail server beyond setting up auto-forwarding services.

A couple of times I'd gone into mail configuration files far enough to edit lines of shell code, TPU code, or the Pine setup parameters. That's as far as I'd gone. Those straightforward servers and clients came packaged with distributions, so my configuration skills with them could be, and were, primitive. We would have a home territory advantage in Adam's office, of course. But anything we screwed up would be more visible there, too. I worried I might create a mail configuration that didn't route.

"You won't have to specialize the setups. The mail server and web server are for me to play with. You just need to install three Linux machines to use as servers."

I'd already installed Slackware for myself on a PC compatible machine. It was great, way easier than Digital Unix or AIX. I knew Slackware would be perfect.

"Okay, I have a plan," I replied.

"Good." He took a breath. "You haven't asked about the money."

"Yeah." That was the down side. I figured Adam would want a special deal, hours or days of work as a favor.
"It's fifteen hundred dollars." Adam interrupted my thoughts. "I told them your rate was five hundred per server. And they went for it."

There was silence on the phone line for a moment because I didn't know how to respond. Adam waited for me to speak. The pores on my skin opened up in preparation for a session of nervous sweat. This was too lucky to be reasonable. Adam had cut a good deal. So there had to be something unsaid, something wrong. If there wasn't some element in this already steering us to disaster, we would be doomed for some other reason, some factor we hadn't considered.
"What about your ISP connection?" I asked, looking for the hidden harbinger of doom.

"I've already made a deal. I'll have to do the TACACS setup with them but we have a connection upstream."

"I configured TACACS for Hood College."

"I know," he replied, sounding exasperated. "You told me. But the ISP wants this done a certain way. I've committed to doing it with them. I'll call you if I need help."

He probably wouldn't need help. I wondered if I'd really have anything to do. It didn't seem enough to provide the basic Slackware Linux.

In 1994, personal computer hardware kits were starting to come with CD drives. But they weren't standard. When I asked Adam, he wasn't sure he could get his company to spend extra for the fancy drives. After all, the three servers would sit in closets, maybe with no monitors. They would never display media to anyone at the console. The CD drives in them would mostly go to waste. So I prepared a Slackware machine image on 3.5 inch floppy disks. The basic installation files took up twenty floppies. The number climbed higher with the optional driver disks. I didn't want to skip any.

With color-coded labels, I built my collection. My paranoia kicked in. I wanted to arrive with every possible hardware driver for Linux I could bring. All of them in existence, maybe. Non-standard hardware was the toughest part of installing Linux in 1995. At the time, even mainstream companies made personal computers with weird network cards or embedded graphics modules that made it impossible to find a driver anywhere except at the vendor. And the vendors never made Linux drivers. I'd always wanted to write a hardware driver, sure, but not during an installation job.

In the weeks leading up to the configuration and launch weekend, I got nervous and made an extra set of Slackware installation disks. I located more Linux drivers and made more sets of installation files. Plenty of times, I'd heard Adam say, "I know a guy." This was probably the first time I'd been the guy.

When the day arrived, I drove from Frederick to Gaithersburg to pick up Adam.
"I'll drive to my office," he said as he ate at his dining room table. Although I knew I would get carsick in the passenger seat, I agreed. After all, the place was in downtown D.C. On my own, I'd get lost or pay three times what I should for parking.
I started feeling better after a few minutes in the semi-dark, lonely offices. The place had a careless air of comfort. Plus, I had my plans about what to do. When I asked Adam questions, I had in mind particular steps in a particular order for my plans. To my relief, the steps we'd discussed in kind of an offhand way before made sense to Adam when I got into the details. He had his own set of plans around the hardware, the network, and the timing of the configurations. Our ideas seemed to fit together perfectly. When I started the first server installation, which was agreed would be Usenet, Adam was by my side handing me disks.

"We could do this in half the time if I start using your second set of installation disks on the mail server," he observed. And it was true. So we proceeded to cycle through the Slackware steps, each of us shouting the disk numbers across the office or trading disks as necessary. The hitches I expected to run into, like the driver choices, arose. But, time after time, we got through them. During the first installation, I was able to pick the most generic drivers or look up the hardware specifications to find a close match. There was only one device driver, the one for network cards, where I had to guess. I guessed right.

After that, all we had to do was duplicate the installation process for the web server. As I finished the third computer, Adam verified his TACACS configuration steps. I pinged his mail server from the web server. I pinged the Usenet server. So far, we had spent ninety minutes.

The hourly rate looked amazing.

"The mail server doesn't quite look like it should," said Adam. He checked the instructions with his Internet provider. As it turned out, I knew what to do to make Linux behave the way he needed.

Then, while he tested his mail, I configured the web server, a piece of cake since I'd done it a half-dozen times before. Finally, Usenet. Once I was running the Usenet service, though, I found the easiest setting was to let it grab every thread it could find from an upstream server.

"Yeah, that's fine," Adam concluded at the end of our Usenet discussion. "I'll decide what parts to eliminate later. The main thing is to start grabbing it. Is it really working?"

I could see it chugging away in the process table but I understood the sight wasn't enough. For Adam, I navigated into the Usenet directory tree and showed him the files and folders it was creating.

"Nice." He let out a sigh. He walked back to the last machine he'd been working on, the mail computer. His fingers rested on top. "How fast do you think these machines are, anyway."

"Brand new." I knew he understood the specs. He'd bought them. "As fast as you can get in personal computers, really."

"I think we should load test the servers."

"What does that mean?"
He was smiling. I knew I'd missed a hint.

"Did you bring the game disks I mentioned?"

"Oh, yeah." He meant the free version of Doom. I pulled out a separate box of floppy disks and waved it. He laughed and nodded. I repeated, "Oh."

He chuckled again.


For another twenty minutes, we loaded Doom as a team, cycling through disks in the same way we'd done before with the more serious work. I felt giddy. The amount of money involved had made the stakes seem overwhelming. Server configuration and minor bits of coding were the kinds of things I did at work every day. But I'd never had this rate of pay.

In my mind, this was a scam. The company was willing to pay me. I was willing to take their money. That was the scam. But it was the sort of scam where I pretended to do the work and actually did it. And they pretended to pay me and actually paid me.

If I could pretend to work well enough, I would never get caught.

"Yes!" Adam shouted as we fired up the first copy of Doom and got the welcome screen, a fiery background with a fighter in greenish. Behind the fighter loomed the dramatic DOOM logo. In front of the entire set of graphics, the computer presented us with a menu: New Game, Load Game, Save Game, Options.

"Can you make yours be the server?" Adam called. "I'm almost done. Then I'll try to join."

I had meant to run Doom on Slackware before this but I never had. There were so many non-Linux machines around, I had always grabbed a DOS or Windows computer to play games. This time, I switched the Slackware version of Doom into server mode. It worked great.

We made sure the computers were fast. Extra sure, maybe. After we spent an hour shooting each other with bazookas, Adam leaned back in his chair. He let out a satisfied sigh and announced, “The network is fine. And the servers are fast."

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