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The Early History of Usenet, Part VI: The Public Announcement

Steven Bellovin

Our goal was to announce Usenet at the January, 1980 Usenix meeting. In those days, Usenix met at universities; it was a small, comaparatively informal organization, and didn't require hotel meeting rooms and the like. (I don't know just when Usenix started being a formal academic-style conference; I do know that it was no later than 1984, since I was on the program committee that year for what would later be called the Annual Technical Conference.) This meeting was in Boulder; I wasn't there, but Tom Truscott and Jim Ellis were.

Apart from the announcement itself, we of course needed non-experimental code — and my prototype was not going to cut it. Although I no longer remember precisely what deficiencies were in my C version, one likely issue was the ability to configure which neighboring sites would receive which newsgroups. Stephen Daniel, also at Duke CS, wrote the code that became known as "A-news". One important change was the ability to have multiple hierarchies, rather than just the original "NET" or "NET.*". (Aside: I said in a previous note that my C version had switched to "NET.*" for distributed groups, rather than the single NET. I'm now no longer sure of when that was introduced, in my C version or in Steve Daniel's version. He certainly supported other hierarchies; I certainly did not.) It was also possible in the production version to configure which groups or hierarchies a site would receive. For sanity's sake, this configuration would have to be in a file, rather than in an array built into the code.

That latter point was not always obvious. Uucp, as distributed, used an array to list the commands remote sites were permitted to execute:

char *Cmds[] = {
   "mail",
   "rmail",
   "lpr",
   "opr",
   "fsend",
   "fget",
   NULL
   };

/* to remove restrictions from uuxqt
 * redefine CMDOK 0
 *
 * to add allowable commands, add to the list under Cmds[]
 */

To permit rnews to execute, a system administrator would have to change the source code (and most people had source code to Unix in those days) and recompile. This was, in hindsight, an obviously incorrect decision, but it arguably was justifiable in those days: what else should you be allowed to do? There were many, many fewer commands. (I should note: I no longer remember for certain what fsend, fget, or opr were. I think they were for sending and receiving files, and for printing to a Honeywell machine at the Bell Labs Murray Hill comp center. Think of the ancient GCOS field in /etc/passwd file.)

To work around this problem, we supplied a mail-to-rnews program: a sending site could email articles, rather than try to execute rnews directly. A clock-driven daemon would retrieve the email messages and pass them to rnews. And it had to be clock-driven: in those days, there was no way to have email delivered directly to a program or file. (A security feature? No, simply the simplicity that was then the guiding spirit of Unix. But yes, it certainly helped security.) The remote site configuration file in the A-news therefore needed to know a command to execute, too.

The formal announcement can be seen here. The HTML is easier on the eyes, but there are a few typos and even some missing text, so you may want to look at the scanned version linked to at the bottom. A few things stand out. First, as I noted in Part III, there was a provision for Duke to recover phone charges from sites it polled. There was clearly faculty support at Duke for the project. For that matter, faculty at UNC knew what I was doing.

A more interesting point is what we thought the wide-area use would be: "The first articles will probably concern bug fixes, trouble reports, and general cries for help." Given how focused on the system aspects we were, what we really meant was something like the eventual newsgroup comp.sys.unix-wizards. There was, then, a very strong culture of mutual assistance among programmers, not just in organizations like Usenix (which was originally, as I noted, the Unix Users' Group), but also in the IBM mainframe world. The Wikipedia article on SHARE explains this well:

A major resource of SHARE from the beginning was the SHARE library. Originally, IBM distributed what software it provided in source form and systems programmers commonly made small local additions or modifications and exchanged them with other users. The SHARE library and the process of distributed development it fostered was one of the major origins of open source software.

Another proposed use was locating interesting source code, but not flooding it to the network. Why not? Because software might be bulky, and phone calls then were expensive. The announcement estimates that nighttime phone rates were about US$.50 for three minutes; that sounds about right, though even within the US rates varied with distance. In that time, at 300 bps — 30 bytes per second — you could send at most 5400 bytes; given protocol overhead, we conservatively estimated 3000 bytes, or a kilobyte per minute. To pick an arbitrary point of comparison, the source to uucp is about 120KB; at 1KB/sec, that's two hours, or US$20. Adjusting for inflation, that's over US$60 in today's money — and most people don't want most packages. And there was another issue: Duke only had two autodialers; there simply wasn't the bandwidth to send big files to many places, and trying to do so would block all news transfers to other sites. Instead, the proposal was for someone — Duke? — to be a central respository; software could then be retrieved on demand. This was a model later adopted by UUNET; more on it in the next installment of this series.

The most interesting thing, though, is what the announcement didn't talk about: any non-technical use. We completely missed social discussions, hobby discussions, politial discussions, or anything else like that. To the extent we considered it at all, it was for local use — after all, who would want to discuss such things with someone they'd never met?

By Steven Bellovin, Professor of Computer Science at Columbia University
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