Sysadmin

I’ve been using computers since I got my first ZX81. I later graduated to a Spectrum while at school I used TRS-80 Model1, 380z and BBC Micro. When I was old enough to get evening and Saturday work at a local supermarket I saved up and bought myself a TRS-80 Model 100 on which I wrote my ‘A’ level computer science course work. The code actually ran on the school’s 380z but I wrote the code using the TRS-80’s text editor and then uploaded it to the 380z via a serial link. That was the first time I connected two computers together and I found the whole idea fascinating. Soon after, I managed to acquire a 300 baud acoustic coupler - not the latest tech since 2400bps modems were starting to appear but still usable to connect to BBSes and anyway, 300 baud it reading speed, why would you need to go any faster? <G>

Skipping lightly over the fact that I’d gone off to poly (which is what we used to call crap universities in those days) and spent so much time getting drunk I flunked out at the end of the first term; I ended up over the next few years later with an Amiga 500, a succession of modems and spending most of my time hanging out on fidonet (I ran a fidonet ‘point’), other fido technology networks and Transworld BBS; a local BBS in Bristol UK (there were a couple of other BBSs of the same name in other countries).

Transworld was popular with unix contractors among other things and even had a UUCP feed for usenet. At it’s peak it had 3 phone lines and a mind boggling (at the time) 3 Gigabytes of files available for download. download When the second sysop ran out of time to run the bbs due to a combination of work and family commitments I took over as it’s third and final sysop, extending it’s life another few years. It was mostly the internet that killed it as it did pretty much all BBSen but a double failure of the main drive the BBS software lived on and the drive with the only backup on when I swapped that in was the final nail in the coffin.

It my first unix shell account (I’d used VMS when I was at poly) on the SCO box that provided the boards usenet feed and the same guy who gave me a pile of floppy disks containing something called ‘linux’ that some Finnish student had written that he though was going to be quite big. It was Slackware and I think it must have been version 1 because I recall the kernel version starting with a 0 (this would probably have been 93 or 94 I think). I ran it on a 386 and compiling the kernel (which you had to do to make it have the right drivers for your hardware) took all night.

About this time I got a temporary job helping set up the network and computing resources at the newly built John Cabot City Technology College. I’d done a variety of tech support type jobs at this point but mostly working on MS-DOS and Windows 3.* systems because that was what was available. My Amiga was still my main machine even though I had a couple of PCs at this point (one ran the BBS, the other was the linux box) because the Amiga was just plain better - by this point I’d bodged on an MFM hard disk and had built my own PSU for it after getting bored of the standard ones blowing up (and too skint to keep buying them come to that). The job at Cabot was great because it was (in those days anyway) a Mac shop. In fact I believe it was the largest educational network of Macs in the UK at the time. However they also had one Amiga which ran Scala to drive a couple of big monitors in reception displaying notices, photos of school events and that sort of thing. Setting this up was the only time I ever got paid to work on Amigas. The school network ran TCP/IP (and we were very glad of System 7.5 when it came out) and the main server for that network was an Apple Workgroup Server 95 - that is a Quadra 950 with a fast scsi drive running A/UX.

A/UX was an interesting thing. It was basically straight SystemV UNIX but with the Mac finder on top as a GUI. I felt at the time that this was a combination with interesting possibilities since my main impression of MacOS at the time coming from an Amiga with full preemptive multitasking was “nice user interface shame about the underlying OS”. That Workgroup Server was also the first time I had root on a unix system with real live users.

After the temporary job at Cabot finished I got a job working for CompuServe UK. This was helldesk and I did sometimes have to do some time on the phones but I was on the “Feedback” team which meant email support. This immediately removed the number one problem that people called up with: “no you need a modem to connect to the internet”. I was team specialist for non-windows systems - all those weirdos with Macs, Amigas, Atari STs, Acorn RiscPCs and even occasionally Linux.

After CompuServe I did a spell tech writing before getting back into the unix sysadmin thing by getting a job working for the Electrical & Electronic Engineering Department at Bath University. There I got to administer and support a wide rage of Unix systems - primarily Solaris and Linux but also HP-UX and OSF-1 since each research group bought their own hardware to support their own needs.

After a couple of years at Bath my partner Melanie got a job up north and so to be with her I took a job at York University where I mostly looked after a lab full of SGI kit but also some Tru-64 and Linux boxes (on the whole I think IRIX is my favourite of the commercial Unices of that vintage).

Which brings me to my current job working for Red Embedded and doing the sort of “geek support” sysadmin I love. When I started there was one full tower PC acting as server. After a few iterations of server infrastructure we’re currently running a kvm cluster based on Ubuntu with quite a few homebrew bits. We built our own 10G ethernet switch for example as an off the shelf switch that could cope with the mix of SFP+ and CX4 connectors on our SANs and nodes was prohibitively expensive.