Why, When I Was A Boy….

Posted Tuesday, 20 June 2006, 3:13 pm

I started out earning a living ‘on the internet’ in October of 1994. I was hired to answer phones for a small local ISP, that had recently gotten a 56K frame relay connection to the internet. I still vividly recall my first day on the job. The office was just a tiny half an office really. barely more than a very large walk in closet. The owner was the only staffer. He’d partnered with a fellow who printed a monthly rag about the online world, and they were leveraging that periodical as a ‘free’ means of getting the word out – advertising – this little ISP’s services. It worked!

That first morning I arrived on the job, my first responsibility was to check the voicemail. There were seventy messages from people wanting internet access. The voicemail box was completely full. These people were clamoring for a dialup connection, and businesses were calling wanting a permanent connection to the net.

I begged my boss – who later became my business partner – to stop advertising, just for a little bit, so we could take care of signing up all these new leads. I think he may have said he’d think about it. The man is a born salesman, icecubes to eskimos and all that, so the notion of not advertising probably just didn’t register.

Of course, we did get most of them signed up, and for every one we did, two more inquiries came in. At the same time, the servers were having some difficulties. The mailserver – oh sweet jesus that mailserver – was a little PC, I think an intel 486 – running Novell Unixware. What a nightmare. What a perverse nightmare. It was, quite simply, a very broken Unix. The mailserver software had some horrible bugs. We’d have outages. We’d lose mail. Of course, being the early wild-west days of the internet, the customers were just so darned happy to be online, and had no real benchmark to compare the service with, that while we did get many complaints, in retrospect they were incredibly mild. So long as we told them ‘yeah, the mailserver’s having problems we’re trying to get it fixed’, they were very forgiving. In fact, one of the things that made our service stand out was our honesty with the customers. When there were problems, we copped to them. And the customers loved that. We had a remarkably loyal customers base due to that, and I take a fair amount of credit for that.

As I was saying, that mailserver was a nightmare. And my business partner was way too busy following up sales leads and working on new advertising, to manage the servers. So, it fell to me. I’ve always been technically minded, and I took to Unix systems administration like a fish to water. In time, we moved away from the lame PC’s running questionable Unices. The gold standard was a Sun SPARC running Solaris, so that’s what we got.

The first Sun Server was a SPARC LX. Incredibly underpowered by today’s standards – 40mhz sparc CPU, I think at best 128 megs of ram. As I recall it cost in excess of $5,000. but it ran. And ran and ran and ran.

My goodness, I’ve gone into a lot of detail – and this is barely into the first year of my career, hardly even six months I’d say. I can’t imagine anyone reading all the way to the end of this. So I’ll say "spin on mutex" right here. You know the secret code now!


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