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Network Connection

By Dr. Philip Baczewski, Associate Director of Academic Computing

A Mainframe Memoir

As of December 1, for the first time in over 30 years, the University of North Texas is without an operational IBM Mainframe system. Some might mark this as a long overdue move on the University's part, but to me, it's a sign of how much has changed over the course of my computing career and, in some ways, how much has not changed.

My first exposure to a UNT IBM mainframe was running geography population simulation software in a sophomore honor's seminar. We punched our cards according the professor's specifications and, remarkably, got an understandable result on glorious over-sized green-bar paper. My first full-time job on campus was to operate one of that early mainframe's successors. When the opportunity arose, I applied for and won a position in Academic Computing providing user services to faculty and students who used The Computer (the mainframe) for their research or teaching, and the rest, as they say, is history.

"The Bitnet Connection"

So what's the network connection, you ask? The mainframe was also the first widely available networked computer on the UNT campus. Before DecNet, or the wildly new ArpaNet, the mainframe was connected to Bitnet, a project which started as an experiment to link up computers at CUNY and Yale. It went on to become the first widespread network of university
computers linking all major institutions in the U.S. and many abroad, and finally faded against the blaze that was the late 1990s Internet. Back in 1987, I was named the Bitnet education representative for UNT. It was my job to teach people how to use this new network technology, and part of that effort was the establishment of this column as "The Bitnet Connection."

A lot of wide area network "firsts" happened on the UNT mainframe. The first network e-mail, the first network file transfer, the first Listserv mailing list access, the first instant message capability, and the first online chat program. That's right. I was chatting with students and other computer operators all over the U.S. via my mainframe account long before today's "kewl kidz" were AAK (that's "alive and kicking" for you parents) on IM connections and in chat rooms. (There were chat rooms back then too, except in true mainframe fashion, they were called "channels".)

While Bitnet was not as technologically forward-looking as the eventual Internet, it was a useful tool which began the revolution in scholarly communication. It provided the first e-mail address many people ever had, and provided a good laboratory for working out many of the challenges that wide area networking first provided. The same Listserv software which still manages much Internet mailing list traffic was first developed as a Bitnet mainframe application.

Another kind of Network

But, in spite of my fond, and sometimes not so fond, memories of the old mainframe, it's not the data network I'll most remember. Rather, it's the network of people I came to know and had the pleasure of working with that will remain a presence in my memory. We (and they, I assume) celebrate retirement this month for three of those people.

Steve Minnis, in my experience, has always been the person ultimately in charge of the UNT mainframe systems programming and operations staff, and with his sharp intellect seemed to be able to solve any problem that presented itself on the mainframe systems. Don Swatloski was the database guru who seemingly had the entire Software AG Adabas technical library committed to memory and who could quote passages from the appropriate volume when an application unexpectedly failed at 3:00 a.m. George Williams managed a diverse set of mainframe applications and a programming team to go with them; he and I happened to end up in the same San Francisco restaurant one spring break when I was visiting my sister he was on his honeymoon, one of those cosmic coincidences that even a mainframe can't help you explain.

So, technology marches on, but its nice sometimes to remember that not everything is new and that a lot of people did a lot of good work to bring computing and networking technology to the current levels of operation and access. Their efforts laid the foundation for the connections we have to information and people around the world. And, I think it's the connection to people that is the most important network connection.


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