AOH :: SKOOLBBS.TXT|
Trials of running a school BBS
Trials and tribulations of setting up a STUDENT-RUN It's been more than a
year since the decision was made to give Nyack High School students the
ability to telecommunicate with each other.
The original intent was to create a schoolwide bulletin board/database for
use as a teaching tool for telecommunications, instead of paying the
expensive prime-time fees of CompuServe and other information services. We
noticed that many of the students in the computer classes were beginning to
purchase modems for their IIe computers and other systems and had started to
dial into some "local" area BBSs. They had found communication with each
other over the data lines wasn't as easy as it appeared to be, however.
The plan we developed, then, allowed students to access the school's board
from home, killing two birds with one stone--this arrangement provided not
only a teaching tool but also a cheap computer BBS system for students that
was truly local. Thus, the Nyack High School BBS was conceived.
Getting off the Ground
Looking into the matter a little further, we realized that getting this
project off the ground wasn't going to be as simple as it had first
appeared. I had little prior experience with programming BBSs, and my only
knowledge of telecommunications involved dialing CompuServe occasionally.
The major stumbling block seemed to be a severe lack of information and
great confusion about how to get it. Many magazines had articles on BBSs,
but few addressed the problem of how to get started, so a few students and I
began to look at some other BBSs within our area code (914). Most of them
seemed to be using versions of GBBS, by Greg Schaefer. Since so much
support seemed to be available for this software, including a BBS support
network, it seemed to be the logical choice. Since I'm a programmer at
heart, however, I felt I should look at the possibility of generating some
original BBS software.
We quickly arrived at the decision to buy the software after I bought a book
on how to write a BBS system. The programming task would have required a
commitment beyond the amount of time I could donate to the project. At a
suggestion from another computer coordinator in a neighboring district, I
bought GBBS Pro, with the assurance that it was everything we needed to get
started--and much more.
With the manual in front of me, I began to build the system. Two disk
drives, an Apple IIe with 128K of RAM, and a Hayes Micromodem IIe (300 bits
per second) seemed to give me a bare-bones system--enough to get everything
configured and running from the keyboard for testing and modifying.
The manual was actually good at explaining how to configure the system disks
to get a minimal BBS running, but it gave me little or no help on how to
customize the BBS. A good place to start was the message base--should it
have one large base or a few subboards? Subboards won out, but the trade-off
was more configuring and more time consumption. Out of that decision came a
sysop board, where I posted messages from me to the nonexistent (at that
time) users; a joke board; and a Nyack High School Board, for posting
important messages. I also created a few other boards for individual
departments in the high school, including an Apple board for technical aid
and a General board for loose use--i.e., gossip.
I configured the system quickly and was becoming encouraged at my rapid
success. GBBS Pro configuration disks are all menu-driven, so the process
flew along. There were a few missing pieces in my logic, however. In
setting up the subboards, the manual informed me, I had to set security
flags so that the boards could be either Read, Write, or Read/Write. What
were security flags? Good question, since the manual had only two sentences
on the subject.
Apparently, the concept of security is familiar to all sysops who have had
much experience with boards but not that obvious to new sysops struggling
with new concepts. After consultationwith the BBS support service and
waiting about two weeks for a response that didn't come, we determined
through experimentation that each subboard in the system accessed a string
of 0s and 1s that was specified as a user's status string. For example, if
the joke board required that flag 7 be set to a 1, only users with this code
(0000001) could access the board. Confusing? You bet. In addition, the
string can be 32 characters long. Also, some of the flags are reserved for
sysop use. After much time and reconfiguring, I was finally able to make
some sense of the security/status-flag system, but I'm not convinced that I
know all the nuances after more than a year of working with it.
Satisfied that everything was configured properly, I set the modem according
to the manual (since all modems aren't created equal), booted the system,
and got to the main screen of the BBS, whence I could travel through the
system, merrily posting messages for myself to read. There were no users
yet, but I knew of some very interested students willing to help test the
system, namely the two students, Allen and Ray, who helped prepare this
Open for Business
After thoroughly testing the system over the phone lines, we had a general
feeling of satisfaction that all was OK, so we opened for business at 300
bps. Since the computer labs couldn't free up a system to be dedicated to
the BBS, the board shared regular classroom use with a IIe. Eventually,
this setup became unworkable, so the board hours were reset from 4 P.M. to 8
A.M. so the equipment could be free for schoolday use.
This situation seemed satisfactory at first, but two problems kept
appearing. First, disk storage was entirely inappropriate. Apple 5
1/4-inch disks hold only 140K. Subtract from that the room necessary to
hold the system (one drive), and you're left with very little room for
messages, let alone any special services you want to establish. Since I was
using a ten-megabyte ProFile hard-disk in the computer lab primarily for my
own administrative work, I pondered the possibility of partitioning off a
piece for the board. The advantages seemed to outweigh the risks, so after a
few days of reconfiguring (again), we were on-line with about five megabytes
of disk space to play with.
The second problem was the 300-bps speed. At first, Ray, Allen, and the few
users were amazed at the speed, but after only a few weeks, we felt as if we
were crawling through the messages at a "see Spot run" prereading pace. So
along came a friend with a spare 300/1200 Signal-Express modem for our use.
Along with that new piece of equipment came another reconfiguration.
By now, the reconfiguring process was old hat and nearly automatic, but our
high confidence levels suffered a rude awakening. After we booted it, the
board gave all appearances of dialing itself in an endless loop. Not only
was the board dialing itself, but it was also answering itself, as a flurry
of screens flew by. Only a quick Reset could bring this idiocy to a
halt--back to the drawing board.
Returning to the trusty manual to find our particular modem settings was a
lesson in frustration. Did we have a Hayes-compatible? Was it a generic
multispeed? Was it set DTE high or DCE high? What we needed was a short
course in modem technology. Also we ran into a slight problem with the
cable that came with the modem: Two pins were reversed on the RS-232 male
Luckily, the friend who'd donated the modem stepped in. Since he was in
charge of telecommunications for a major airline in New York City, he
assumed he wouldn't have any problem setting up th e modem.
It was many days later, however, after many frustrating tries, that all our
problems were solved, the modem was set properly, the cable problem was
fixed, and we could "read" the incoming speed and have the modem adjust
itself to match it. Not only that, but we also felt that we had a good
basic understanding of modem terminology. What a difference 1200 bps made.
The gossip was flying around the board, and along with the gossip came a few
more subboards, including a trivia board and a debate board.
Of course, just when you think things are going well, that's just when they
begin to fall apart. The board, both software and hardware, was working
well. The problem was actually brewing beneath the surface, where my two
coauthors were plotting a takeover.
Although both Allen and Ray had had a bit to do with setting up the board,
they didn't start working on it until January. As they increased their
input into the board's operation, they exerted more and more influence over
the actual board operations. Unbeknownst to me, a mutiny had taken hold
over the holidays. The users began to demad more power in making decisions
that affected the board. Anyway, it was supposed to be a school board.
Allen had lined up another board sysop from a neighboring school who agreed
that it would be both a useful and an educational experience to turn the
board over to the students, specifically Allen and Ray. After a debate on
the subboard about what should be done, we held a vote, which necessitated
reworking the voting section of the board (and every change to the board had
As we'd expected, both Allen and Ray became cosysops with me. I wasn't
ready to relinquish all control over the board, because I understood exactly
how much personal time the board could take simply for maintenance chores.
At first, the students underestimated their job. Running a BBS isn't simply
a matter of reading messages and assuring the extinction of all profanity.
As more users came on-line, they beganto ask for refinements to the board,
such as the installation of a clock card, an interactive game, a "handle"
section where they didn't have to use real names, and the ability to move
both forward and backward through the message base.
These requests meant that we had to modify the board. To save time, Allen
and Ray began to divide the board duties. Allen now seems to handle much of
the actual programming of the baord. Since the board runs on a proprietary
language called ACOS (which is really a combination of the best of Pascal
and BASIC), Allen has had to become very familiar with the manual. Ray's
duties have evolved into keeping and updating the user files that deal with
status and personal information. He makes determinations regarding
clearance and admits new users after he voice-verifies them over the phone
line. In addition, all of us have to ride shotgun over users who simply
don't understand the rules of the board.
So, the takeover was complete. Along with the decision-making power now in
the hands of the students, so is much of the actual day-to-day running of
hte board--which isn't to say that the board is all work and no play.
For instance, we have had online debates on any and all subjects. Some of
our more popular past debates have been on topics as diverse as sex
education in the schools, politics, fears, dented gumballs (do you believe
that one?), and rather simple subjects such as The Meaning of Life. Some of
these debates have sprung subboards of their own. Thanks to the efforts of
Allen and Ray, politics has its own board (somewhere in the middle of the
list, to avoid political pressure from the left or right).
At the time of this writing, the BBS has stabilized at 17 subboards,
including topics such as the Movies, Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Quotables, Yell at the
Sysop, and others. Of course these topics keep changing and were a result
of about 25-30 subboards' being cut and pasted, depending on their
Of course, having two cosysops has had so me advantages for me. I can now
relax in the knowledge that the board will be self-perpetuating. For
example, this past summer, I left the board under the auspices of the
cosysops, knowing that they would take care of all of the problems. We left
the board running on a full-day schedule, with only minor problems because
of power outages and the like. The only downside to ignoring the board for
an entire summer was that I had more than 1000 messages to read when I
returned to the console, but most of the reading was enjoyable.
Some problems are sure to arise in the near future, one of which we are
anticipating. Both Allen and Ray are seniors, so they will be leaving the
school at the end of this academic year, and there is some rumbling beneath
the otherwise calm surface of the board. Will the new cosysops be from
among our candidates? Will it be a peaceful takeover? Who knows, but I'm
sure the transfer will completely involve my free time. Of course, a new
regime will change the entire flavor of the board, but isn't that the reason
for having students run it is the first place?
As of now, things are relatively peaceful. We haven't had a problem in some
time now, at least none I'm aware of. So my hat's off to "Fern O'Reason,"
"Lord Ariondus," "Bushido Blade," "Burger King," "Bilbo Baggins,"
"Drumsong," "Moonshadow," "End of Line," "The Prisoner," and all of the
other nuts who take up all of my spare time. It wouldn't be the same
without you, so keep calling. And as for Ray and Allen, just call them on
the board (users #4 and #6). I'm sure they'll be more than happy to help
Please feel free to dial us for help, advice, or just some fun. We are the
Nyack High School BBS (914) 358-3505 4 P.M.-8 A.M. EST 24
hours/day--weekends, holidays, and summer vacation 300/1200 bps.
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