Posted on July 29, 2022 at 4:33 pm

Iron Gods, Iron Angels, Dragons and Sharks.

Where were you in 1993?

Me, probably at my computer. My grandfather bought me a Laser Turbo XT. 40mbyte RLL hard drive. Seagate. 640kbyte of RAM. Tiny by today’s standards. It’s specs less than a rounding error by today’s standards. But at the time, that was a lot.

This was my first Iron God. But not my only one. Some of my Iron Gods were, and still are Iron…well and lately more aluminum. Ford. Chevy. Harley. Honda. Yamaha. Peterbilt. Kenworth. But we’re getting ahead, way ahead.

In 1993 the BBS scene was still hot, red hot. 2400BPS, 9600BPS, and oh so sweet 14.4K. You dialed up to any number of remote systems and interacted with other people, or with games. Or sent messages, read forums. A few even got you connected to FidoNet or UUCP…And on the latter you could sometimes find denizens of ARPANET, or NSFNET, CYCLADES. And those denizens showed us all, we’re not the first to do this. No not by a long shot.

And there, real Iron Gods lived. And hoarded secrets.

I always wanted to learn. To know. And so I did. I learned how limited, and poweful, that XT was. From the electrical, up through to working programs in DOS. I learned. I learned to speak the languages. Assembly, and deeper, machine code.

I learned how to make the machine do whatever I wanted. This tiny Iron God.

I learned about people with names like Kernighan, Ritchie, Cerf, Vixie, Postel, Crocker, Mockapetris, Bernstein, Farber. I learned about them not because any of them sought out fame, or recognition. They built, and wrote. Code, networks, knowledge. Often for no other reason than, like me, they wanted to know. Or they had something they needed to do. And once they built, mostly they shared. Many remember them for what they did. If you don’t see your name in that list, but you recognize any of them, you probably get it. *I* remember IANA. Postel passed away in 1998, some time before I’d left to convene directly with the Iron Gods myself. But I still remember IANA too.

These people were either directly instrumental in the creation of an ethos, or were following that ethos, that code, already. Software did one thing, and try to do that one thing well. The machines could store a nearly limitless number of programs by this time, the big Iron Gods. And each program generally did one specific task. One for removing files, another to list them, one to edit them (later, many) — interaction with a user wasn’t a given early on. Interaction with other programs, was. And interaction with other hosts, other Iron Gods was also very likely. Your program had to behave itself. Does what it says on the tin. Least surprises. Admittedly the last one certainly causes surprises to unwitting admins and users alike. Use rm at your own risk — because if your privileges are sufficient enough you can cause damage to far more than your own foot.

And I was still on BBSes though they were now quickly giving way. Ran my own little not worth mentioning shit show of a board too. Became SysOp on a number of other’s boards. Moderating flame wars and clubbing cave trolls. And I learned.

I learned some tricks. Deep inside the machines and networks. Some tricks which the dragons, especially the dragons with badges, didn’t like. I learned. I learned to avoid them. Taught myself how to get around all manner of copy and license entitlement. Like many that came before me, I often shared what I had learned.

I found stuff. Some of it free, some of it not. And I shared. Some would call it theft. We wouldn’t have. They left the doors open, them with the Iron Gods.

I learned all about NetWare, another tiny Iron God. IPX, SPX, 802.2LLC, SNAP, PCN2, later Ethernet. Soup to nuts. Eggs to cake.

I learned more about the thing called that was starting to be called the internet (not yet The Internet) – where the real Iron Gods were.

Came to understand how it worked. How it was put together, how it grew. It really was the wild west, and it also wasn’t. As a whole it wasn’t planned at all, but it’s pieces were also planned with meticulous care. It was the whole that was never really quite planned. We all trusted IANA. Postel. Either implicitly, or, because we had direct reason to trust him specifically. We trusted but we verified. Postel earned his trust through *generally* being transparent (and there are those who would argue this point, and I shall concede on many fronts)

Out there existed Cisco, NeXT, Sun, Livingston, IBM, DEC, more. Iron Gods and Iron Angels. And Dragons. Lots of dragons. But curiously all of these Iron Gods are more than willing to do whatever you ask of them, if you know how to ask correctly.

High school was finally over for me. And I left for what had been called, and is still called, the Silicon Valley. There was a huge bubble on, and I knew it, everyone was waking up to The Internet. And so I went to be among the Iron Gods. For the first time these machines were more than just text on a screen. They were something I would touch. And Build.

And Build I did. Great temples to Iron Gods. Meticulously planned and executed. Also completely unplanned, unmitigated shit shows. But I made it all work. I didn’t make any of it in my own image. We were never so vain as that. Our fingerprints were allover it, just as the fingerprints of all those who’d built before us. So, when I built I applied what I’d learned before. I stood on top of shoulders, as they stood on others shoulders.  None of us by ourselves giants, but together, doing absolutely giant things. I learned from all of them and…I certainly hope some learned from me.

You did everything as right as you could. As well as you could. Your name may or may not go onto it, but that did not matter. No one will probably know who built that specific part there, but that did not matter. You did it because you wanted to. Someone was willing to pay you to play with their Iron Gods, to be the truth sayer to their arcane ways. And you did it, but usually it wasn’t so much because you got paid.

You didn’t really ever have a permanent seat at the table in the board room with the sharks. But if you wandered in, and sat down, you would rarely be asked to leave either. Not because they feared you – though some rightfully did – not usually because they needed you – though they also certainly did – but because they respected your work, and if you were proper, as a SysAdmin should be, your person.

You rarely feared the sharks. They couldn’t eat you. And if they tried, you could walk away, or they would choke on you before they managed to finish the first bite.  On to the next Iron God and start over, not quite tabula rasa, but, elsewhere.  With the trust and knowledge you had gained. And when those sharks occupying those seats came to a decision to exclude and remove one of their own, it was more often than not you who actually made it stick. Firing and removal, especially at the C level was and is frowned upon, but when it does happen, to whom do they come to first?  Their speaker to the Iron God. 

To be sure, there was lots of paperwork that others had to do. But it was us who convened directly with the Iron Gods, and spoke their languages, we were the ones who locked the door on those deemed unnecessary, unworthy, or unsatisfactory. In many cases also literally locking doors. The value of the company was wrapped up in the things inside the Iron God, and they already trusted (had to trust) you with the care of that, so often, your keys opened absolutely all of the doors… and locked them too. All the way up to the board room, and the back offices.

So you carried a big honkin stick. Truth. Knowledge. Right. Because you spoke the language of the Iron God. Some would call you the Bastard Operator From Hell….And speaking truthfully, sometimes they were right. Sometimes you were the admin, other times the SysOp, perhaps The Network guy. And you took personal pride in it. It was a thing you built for everyone to use, and ideally, you made it work so well they wouldn’t know who you were, unless they either had to, or you had a Fucked Up Night.

And the majority of us followed a mostly unwritten code. You Behaved. You did what was Expected. You did what You Said. You Promised no more than you were sure you could deliver, and when able, you would exceed that Promise. You spoke Truth, the best you could, even when you knew it was not going to go over well.  Lies, or untruths, are not tolerated by the Iron Gods, nor their keepers. Just like the programs. And just like the programs you weren’t always perfect. Hopefully, you were damn good, but you could always get better, do better. And you did. Your programs did.

The things built, the temples to the Iron Gods. Violating trust was not something you did. Because trust and knowledge were your currency in trade. Neither was valuable without the other. And without them you’d find yourself on the other side of those same doors, locked out by someone with more trust, and, you hoped, more knowledge. If you were lucky when finding yourself in that situation, it would be their Iron God now, but you would have other Iron Gods to attend to.

You did your part. You Built your part. Your networks delivered the best they could. Some of this came originally from technical limitations of the hardware in the earliest days and design decisions made at places like BBN — see RFC 47. There was no priority queuing, no method by which a host could even attempt to receive a message other than the order in which the network processed and presented it, and the network worked on a first come, first served, best effort basis. It was very strongly the hosts problem to decide exactly what order it should process the messages, but it was responsible for picking up those messages from the network immediately in the order presented. The network wouldn’t hold your messages, or prioritize them in any fashion other than first come, best effort. Any individual IMP along the way had room for – worst case – three messages and sometimes more when they were all small….The messages were originally 8080 *bits* long in entirety. 1010 bytes, or characters. Two of those were for routing information, where it was going specifically. Memory on machines at this time was so tight there was no source included. And only 5 bits of those 16 identified the destination host, 32 possible combinations. Such a grand scale…

And that above is just the start of the first set of agreements. About how the machines, these Iron Gods, would communicate with each other, and thereby, allow users to communicate with them from a great distance….And ultimately for users to communicate, converse, and Internetwork with, other users.

And so I tip my hat, and raise my glass, to all those who serve the Iron Gods, to all those who tend to the Iron Gods.  May your Word ever be Truth.  May you always Build with efficiency, and correctness.  May you always honor the Trust given to you.

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