The months immediatley after the "great crash of '94" when our major hard drive system failed were particularly "interesting". Although we ended up not losing any data, we were apalled at the length of time it took to solve the problem. We now own a tape back up system with the capacity to handle our large data volumes. Backups are done daily, Monday to Friday.
As soon as that crisis passed we were faced with another, our old friends at Camosun College were no longer able to support both our demands and theirs on their inadequate 56K Internet connection. They had to restrict the amount of bandwidth we used. So severely that our main SUN Sparc 2 computer became bandwidth limited and couldn't cope with the traffic volumes we were asking it to handle.
The Board and the technical committee decided to issue a request for proposals to find another Internet supplier. This was a somewhat lengthy process, so the British Columbia Systems Corporation were kind eno ugh to offer us an interim solution.
Our original equipment donation from the Telebit Corporation included two NetBlazer router/terminal server devices. This was in response to our original draft system design which separated the modem pool and the comp uter system. This design was never implemented and we ended up with the modem pool and the computer in the Camosun College Lansdowne Campus machine room. This meant that the second NetBlazer was surplus to our needs.
For the BCSC project, we immediately pressed it into service. It was installed on the BC Systems network and the two routers were connected with two telephone lines and four 28.8 modems operating in parallel. This "pseudo 56K" connection sound s a bit bizarre, but actually worked very well.
The successful bidder for our RFP was a consortium composed of Softwords Research International and Pacific Interconnect. As a result, we moved the Free-Net system to a new home on March 20th, 1995. We have now consolidated our office space and machine room at 4252 Commerce Circle in the Royal Oak Industrial Park area. With the equipment in the next room, it is much easier for our volunteer office staff to keep an eye on it. They can handle most of the day to day situations and our volunteer technical committee members are always ready to step in when they can't.
We are very grateful for Pacific InterConnect's donation of a 112K "slice" of their 10M Internet bandwidth. Our monitoring tells us that this is sufficient for our purposes at the moment.
Our next big event was our very successful Casino in April. This raised sufficent money for us to nearly double our modem lines from 22 to 40. As a part of this process, we installed an 8 port serial card in our second NetBlazer and that device is now in daily use managing a part of our modem pool. We also purchased a stock of items for sale as a fund raiser. Have you got your Free-Net t-shirt or pin yet? Both feature our lampost and computer logo and make excellent gifts to yourself or others. Contact Audrey Copping (firstname.lastname@example.org) to place an order.
So, now we have 40 phone lines, a sufficiently large, stable Internet connection, a well organized, air conditioned machine room and some office space and office computers. Everything should be rosy - well things actually did hum along quite nicely for a month or two!
We have, however, decided that when you run a community computer (Free-Net) system, something is always maxed out. As soon as everyone discovered that we'd changed our modem phone number as part of our move and now had a system that was performing much more reliably, frustrated users started to return and, of course, we have for several years now been adding new users at a rate of 80 to 150 a week. We are now passing the 15,000 mark.
Our average number of logins in a 24 hour period is 5,000 and we often have between 55 and 60 simultaneous users on the system. We process a flood of e-mail every day. A lot of you, it seems, are addicted to high volume listserves. Our Sparc 2 computer that has served us so well since 1992 is rapidly becoming overloaded. It can readily cope with 30 to 40 simultaneous users and system loads of 3 to 4. System loads have recently been peaking at over 10. We were all starting to notice a degredation in performance. System response time slowed and mail took longer to be delivered. A normal volume for the mail qeue is 3 to 4 hundred items. When you start getting 1,500 hundred pieces of mail in there we have a problem. The processor gets swamped and mail doesn't get delivered until much later. Indeed, we were even starting to lose some mail and frustrating users with a lack of reliability.
We do have a second machine, a Sparc IPX. This machine is roughly comparable in power to our Sparc 2. It is currently running our Usenet news feed and we plan to move our gopher and Web servers to it. This will help, but probably not that much.
The Board has approved the purchase of a new Sparc 20 level machine. This will be the most significant purchase we have made and we are asking all of our users to contribute generously towards the approximately $20,000 cost.
The problem with the system loads wouldn't wait for the results of a fund raising drive, however. Thus we have recently installed $2,000 worth of additional memory for the Sparc 2. This takes it from 32M to 64M. We expect this to alleviate the problem in the short term. Each user gets about 1M of work space when they are signed on. As soon as you got more than 32 users on the system at once, the machine had to swap back and forth to disk, which created a lot of processor overhead. 64M of main memory is the limit for the Sparc 2 class of machines.
For several months this spring and summer the terminals at the downtown Greater Victoria Public Library were not available. This was a technical problem which was rectified in late August. There are three public terminals and a fourth is about to be added. Also, over the next month each of the five branches of the library (Esquimalt, Oak Bay, Nellie McLung, Saanich-Victoria and Bruce Hutchinson) will have a Free-net terminal available. When the new branch at the Juan de Fuca recreation centre opens there will be one there as well. These are in addition to the terminals already operational at Camosun (Lansdowne and Interurban libraries) and UVic (McPherson library). Also over the next month or two the Vancouver Island Regional Library System will be adding terminals in their Sidney, Brentwood and Sooke branches. Please note that all of our public terminals are provided by the institutions themselves, they do not belong to the Free-Net.
This is all very good news, but it does mean that our system loads are going to keep climbing even without the addition of more dial up lines. We feel that the new larger computer is the only viable solution.
You may have noticed recently that we have added a significant number of new Special Interest Group (SIG) areas. There are also a number of new general information provider sections appearing. This is the result of the fine work of a new committee of volunteers supported by the Free-Net office. There are other jobs that need attention, if you are interested in volunteering, contact the office at 727-7057 or email@example.com We particularly need individuals with skills in fund raising.
The familiar menus and general environment that you see when you connect to the Free-Net are a part of the "FreePort" program. We have about 18 months to go on our 5 year license for this program. It does the job, but it is not being maintained by its developers and has a number of problems. We are not planning to renew the license (it costs $850 US) Instead we have decided to evaluate a Canadian solution. The "Chebucto Suite" developed by David Truman at Dalhousie University in Halifax we think will give us a much improved system. Besides, it's Canadian and it is free to all community networks (at least in Canada - I don't know about elsewhere) Several Canadian community networks are already using it. (Halifax, Blue Sky, Hamilton-Wentworth and possibly others) We will be receiving the first official release of the software soon and will begin tes ting it in our environment.
As many of you know, the Victoria Free-Net Association was started in June 1992 by about 30 people. The 30-40 active volunteers and supporters have always constituted the membership of the Association which ran the Free-Net service. At the 1994 AGM we passed a motion of intent to revise the constitution and bylaws to allow for general membership. This has now been done. Membership is now open to everyone at a cost of $25 per year. Let me hasten to assure everyone that this has nothing to do with user accounts on the Free-Net itself. Users are not members and we are still not charging for accounts. Members may vote and run for office. We are also exploring other possible membership benefits. We hope to announce these shortly.
So, if you support the Free-Net and believe in what we are doing for our community, please join us as a member of the Association. Send your check to the Free-Net office (4252 Commerce Circle, Victoria V8Z 4M2) Better yet, drop in to one of the regular open house coffee parties that the staff is hosting and join then. You will receive a membership card valid for one year from the date you join. Watch the login screen for the open house announcements.
Shortly, when you sign on to the Free-Net, you will see a note saying something like "this connection brought to you by the XYZ company". These "sponsored hours" are another fund raising initiative.
As always, the Free-Net is desperately short of money. We really can't afford to do what we are doing. We would like to run the system with an administrator and some part time office and technical support. We thought we would be at that stage long ago, but in to-day's fiscal climate these things don't come easily.
I have to report to you that now, for the first time ever, our monthly income is not sufficient to cover the cost of our phone lines. With 40 phone lines that bill is about $2800 every month. Now we aren't about to go bankrupt or anything like that, but this is not a situation that can be sustained over the long term. We cannot look to occasional infusions of money to carry this, we must have a sustainable source of income. If a significant fraction of our 15,000 users each gave us $10 or $20 a month, we would be in a much better position.
So, everyone, the continued health and growth of the Victoria Free-Net depends on your support. We will do what we can to raise the Free-Net's profile and increase the level of support in the community. It does, however, come down to a simple fact - it may be a "Free-Net" but it isn't a free lunch - if you want it, you have to support it., by your volunteerism and/or your dollars.
Gareth R. Shearman
Victoria Free-Net Association
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