An Ode to the Cruxen

This is the story of a short time, a quarter century ago, when a little cluster of computers at Cornell University played a very important part in in my life and in the lives of my friends.

It was the fall of 1992, and the Internet was growing up. It would still be another year or two before it became a household name, so for the time being it was our little playground, our special place that you couldn’t get to unless you were at a big research company or a reasonably well endowed University. I lived at Mary Donlon Hall, one of two dorm buildings that had recently been wired with Ethernet and therefore offered its residents a mainline into the addictive world of the Internet.

I remember vividly an evening in September or October of that year, when a friend of mine said “I just got an account on the UNIX machines!”

“What’s UNIX?,” I asked naively. I was a computer enthusiast, but hardly a wizard. Back then I had a hand-me-down IBM XT running IBM DOS 3.3, and although I was familiar with Commodore Amigas and the newfangled Windows operating system that had recently come out, my knowledge didn’t extend far beyond personal computers.

I don’t remember exactly how my friend explained UNIX to me, but I remember the gist: It was a serious operating system, for serious computers. It let many people use the same computer at the same time. Plus, it was way better at the Internet than any little toy PC computer could ever be.

I was kind of awestruck by the idea, and decided right then and there that I needed an account, too. A few days later I marched down to the Cornell Information Technologies office and filled out Xeroxed form promising that I would use the system wisely and follow all the rules, and I was given my own login.

I never actually saw the computers in question. They were locked up in an office somewhere, presumably in the CIT building, but I remember the specs pretty well. There were three of them that first year (though two more would be added in later years): crux1.cit.cornell.edu, crux2.cit.cornell.edu, and crux3.cit.cornell.edu, all DECstation workstations running the ULTRIX operating system, a commercial UNIX developed by DEC. We affectionately called them The Cruxen. They were RISC machines, with MIPS R3000 CPUs and something like 32 MB of RAM each. They were all linked together with NFS and NIS, so you could log into any of them and get access to your home directory regardless of the machine you were using. I don’t remember exactly how much disk space they had, but I want to say all together it added up to 2GB, which was huge at the time.

At first, I didn’t really know what to do with my login. I poked around and learned enough UNIX commands to be pretty dangerous. But then I grew accustomed to using utilities like nn to read Usenet, and mh to read my email, and I started logging in more and more frequently. UNIX was a nice break from the archaic and crash-prone tools I was using in DOS to access the Internet.

It was probably in the spring of 1993 that the Cruxen became a real hang-out spot. Increasingly, I’d notice my friends logged in, and shoot them quick emails out of the blue. Then someone showed me that you could use a tool called msg to send a quick message to someone’s terminal, and if you were interested in more direct communication, you could use talk link your terminals together and chat in real-time. Plus, of course, you could use irc to reach the global IRC network, and telnet to connect to any other system you wanted, including multiuser games called MUDs.

And thus, the Cruxen became our Social Network. Long before Facebook was even a glimmer in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye, we were using the Cruxen as a sort of proto-Facebook. But unlike Facebook, this was totally ours. As long as we didn’t interfere with the running of the system, we were free to explore and create and program whatever we wished.

For the next four years, the Cruxen remained central to my campus life. I made many friends all over the world through IRC and MUDs, and stayed connected to my local friends through email, msg, and talk. I posted frequently to Usenet and kept up with the goings on of the Usenet community. And I even used the cluster for real work, from time to time.

And then, only a few short years later, they were gone. For a while after I left Cornell I was still able to log on and use the system as an alumnus, but that didn’t last long. Soon I started to hear rumors that the systems were going to be put out to pasture, and I think the Cruxen were shut down in late 1998.

So that was it. The entire Crux cluster lasted from 1991 to 1998, and my involvement in it only from 1992 to 1996. Not long at all, in the grand scheme of things, but long enough to have made a huge impact on my life.

I still think about them from time to time, rather fondly. I know many people in many schools during that time probably had a very similar experience. But what sticks with me now is how brief a time college is, and how brief a window in history timesharing systems like that had. It makes me wonder how similar it was for students and faculty at SAIL or the MIT AI lab who had TOPS-20 systems, and for all the countless students who were on BITNET and VAX/VMS systems in the 1980s and 1990s. I’m sure we were not alone.

I also marvel at how different the world is now, just 25 years later, when everything is walled gardens and we’ve sold our privacy to the lowest bidder. Instead of trusting our local system administrator not to read our email, we know for a fact that Google and Facebook read our every message with the goal of finding just the right ads for us, but we just accept it as a cost of doing business. What have we lost, and what have we gained, I wonder? I don’t know.