Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Latency issues

A few weeks ago, I was talking to a friend about how I got started with computers and it reminded me of a few interesting stories I thought I'd share.

They both take place sometime in 1994, although I can't recall exactly when. The first of the two I'm posting below, and the second one I'll follow up later (soon), but it's a bit too late tonight.

I had an account on a local BBS that provided internet email and Usenet newsgroups via UUCP from a local ISP. Keep in mind, back then I didn't really know what UUCP or an ISP was, but I did vaguely know what email was since we could send "mail" to other members of the BBS, and even to a loose group of other BBS's ( I think it was FidoNet).

I dove head first into reading the newsgroups, and found a wealth of information and discussions that just wasn't possible on a local BBS. Back then, I was really into the demo scene, and dabbled in programming in C and Intel 80x86 assembler, trying to eek out what I could from a slow VGA card. One day, while browsing the newsgroups, I found out some demo was released, and I wanted to "get" it, but alas, it wasn't on the "files" section of the BBS. No worries, one of the newsgroups mentioned I could download it via ftp from something called "sunsite". I had no clue what ftp was, but I knew the only "internet" i had was newsgroups and email, and hoping to find it on alt.binaries wasn't an option, since the BBS didn't carry them.

To my rescue, I had learned about something called "ftp email" gateways. Since I did have access to email, I thought I'd give it a try. I read up on ftp, and learned the magical mysteries of the 'open', 'cd', and 'ls' commands. I created a new email to be sent to the gateway. In the body, I put

open sunsite.unc.edu
cd pub

and hit send. And then I waited, dialing back in couple hours to see if I had a reply. When it finally came (some 24 hours later or there abouts), I had a nice directory listing of, yet again, more directories. A new email was crafted, this time with

open sunsite.unc.edu
cd pub/somesubdir

and it was sent off, taking yet again, another 24 hours or so to get a response. Later I found out that the UUCP link only happened twice a day, and by the time my outbound mail made it across the link, and into the ftp email gateway server, the response would have to wait for the next UUCP session before I would see it, making it a guaranteed 12 hour latency, but since I didn't know when the window was, it was pretty much always the next day for me.

Now lets fast forward a few more days, and a couple more subdirectory traversals, and I finally get to the file I want to download. So I type the magical

open sunsite.unc.edu
cd pub/somesubdir/anotherdir/andanother/demos/
get cooldemo.zip

and hit send. The next day, I anxiously awaited for my email. When I logged in, sure enough, there it was. I was all too excited, but the tears of joy after almost a week to back and forth emails quickly became tears of sadness. The file was sent UUEncoded, and I was without a UUDecoder. Had I not been so distraught over all the time I had spent, I probably could have written one myself, but for the time, I simply saved the file, hoping that soon I would figure out how to decode it.

Later that same day, my phone rang. To my surprise, it was the sysop from the BBS. Somehow, my huge download (it was about 1M  back then, after being uuencoded) caused his UUCP usage for that day to skyrocket. Normally, he would only have a few 100K (I seem to recall it being less than 1M), so my one little email caused his traffic to double. Of course, this alarmed him, and after he poked around, it was pretty easy to figure out I was the cause. In any case, he was really nice about it, and we chatted a bit about the internet, and he explained to me about UUCP and who his ISP was, and how I might really want a real account. So later that day, I called up the ISP, and got my first internet account. But that will be another story.

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