An old photo of a large BBS

An old photo of a large BBS

Nearly 30 years ago, I was given this picture. I wanted to present it
in a post all by itself to give it a chance to “sink in” before I went
and used it in an analogy. First, I’ll just show the image and explain
what you’re looking at here.


This was given to me as a postcard-sized photo. I scanned it in a long
time ago and then either lost the original or (more likely) threw it
out. So, unfortunately, this is the highest resolution I have.

I do remember the description from the back: this is a picture of *part
of* something that was called the Software Creations BBS. It was a
multi-line bulletin board system where you could dial up and send
messages to people, upload and download files, and (presumably) play
online games (“doors”) and anything else they cared to offer.

You should be noticing the sheer amount of hardware here. I count 16
machines in each group: 8 high, 2 wide. Then, I see at least 4 groups,
so this is 64 machines in a little space. I have to assume
they are at least
286s (ATs, more or
less), but it’s impossible to tell from just this picture. They could
have been 386s or even 486s by that point, but honestly, the workload
just didn’t call for it. But, I’m getting ahead of myself! (More on
that later…)

I’m fairly sure all of those machines were running DOS. It might’ve
been MS-DOS itself, or it could have been IBM’s PC-DOS, or even
something weirder like DR-DOS or whatever, but I’m fairly sure these
machines weren’t doing any sort of “real” Unix-style multitasking. It’s
likely that one box in this picture equals one “node”, which serviced
exactly one phone line at a time, and thus one user at a time.

Then they probably ran something like Netware, and so there’s at least
one more machine somewhere out of the picture that was acting as the
file server. These individual nodes might’ve had their own hard drives,
or they might have been set to boot from a ROM (!) and did everything
over the network. There’s no way to know from the photo alone.

Based on the research I’ve done, it seems they got as high as 134
, and that means this picture is only showing HALF of their
final setup. Think about that. That is a lot of machines sitting

One side note: I noticed what appears to be two modems on top of some
of these things, like the ones at far right, nearest the camera. It’s
possible they managed to do some rudimentary multitasking with DESQview
(or worse…) and so supported two whole users with each box.
Does that mean they had to be at least 386s to do protected mode? Or
was it virtual 8086 mode? I (fortunately) have forgotten the finer
points of how that stuff used to work. I DO remember how damn crashy a
box became when you ran it “under DV”. Constant system freezes. Yep.

Imagine how much power those things used. Every watt of heat they
dumped into the room then had to be pumped out, so that means a
corresponding amount of air conditioning to take it outside. That seems
like a whole mess of juice to me.

So then, when you see this picture (and remember, it might only be
showing half of the whole setup), do you think “wow, cool, they got
to wrangle all of that”, or do you think “OMG they *had* to wrangle all
of that”? It’s an important distinction to make, and I think someone’s
gut reaction to this amount of hardware in one place might influence how
they approach building new systems.

I’ll leave it there for the moment, but I’ll be back on this topic in
a subsequent post to get a little more opinionated.

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“Simplicity, patience, compassion.
These three are your greatest treasures.
Simple in actions and thoughts, you return to the source of being.
Patient with both friends and enemies,
you accord with the way things are.
Compassionate toward yourself,
you reconcile all beings in the world.”
― Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching