An article that appeared in the Compute Gazette, March 1991, written by Rick Lembree, H.L.C.


Many computer users who call electronic bulletin boards often wonder what it would take to operate their own systems, It takes time, effort, and sometimes money to become a systems operator (sysop), but the rewards can be many. We'll take a look at what it takes to run your own bulletin board system (BBS).

Rick Lembree

With your computer and a modem, a device that transmits and receives computer signals by telephone, you can call practically any BBS in the country or world for the price of the phone call (see "How to Access a BBS"). Most BBS callers enjoy reading messages from other callers and posting their own comments and questions. They also like to download the free software and play the online games many boards offer. It's easy to understand a BBS's appeal, but what enjoyment does the sysop derive from having his or her computer and telephone tied up for the benefit of others.  With your own BBS. you can literally speak to the computing world via your own little soapbox. You can use it to exchange programs and files, to voice your opinion, or to create your own fantasy world. I've seen some BBSs that are operated like an adventure game, where the users are citizens of a fantasy kingdom. A BBS is merely a form of communication between you, the sysop, and the users. Bear in mind the importance of interaction between users. Without that, you will not have a successful BBS. The spirit of a BBS is in the sharing of knowledge among fellow computer enthusiasts. As in a conversation, both parties must contribute for a bulletin board to be successful.


The First Steps

In this article. I'll attempt to instruct the neophyte sysop on the ins and outs of starting his or her own BBS, describing the minimum requirements for a system run on a 64 and those for a larger 128 system. Before you attempt to start a BBS, however. I can't emphasize enough the importance of joining a user group. A user group is a great place to obtain help with a project like this, and it will most likely have several public domain (PD) or shareware BBS programs available for you to try at little or no cost.

If your user group runs a BBS, you may want to get involved with it to get your feet wet before attempting to start your own. In addition, once you've set up a BBS, you'll want a ready supply of PD software to make available to your callers. A user group is a great place to obtain good PD software.

Before you set up your BBS, ask yourself what you want it to do. Do you want it to be your own private BBS that only your friends can access, or will it be open to the public with restricted or unrestricted use? My suggestion is to do as I did in 1984. Start small and allow only friends online at first. Don't release the telephone number to the public. This way, you can see if you are sysop material. It's also a good way to test how your system will perform on your voice phone before you make a decision to go public and possibly spend money on a separate telephone line. I'll discuss that in further detail later.

Do You Know What Time it Is?

A few words of caution if you do decide to run a board on your only home phone. Do so only during the times you aren't expecting voice calls. Make it a part-time BBS, and don't give your number to the public. Once you've released your number, if you decide that you don't want to be a sysop or if you change to a full-time system on another telephone line, you're liable to be plagued with calls on your voice telephone line at three in the morning. You'll answer the phone only to hear a computer on the other end. I made that mistake in 1984, and I still get calls.

If you do decide to go public, get another phone line and use that one for your BBS. The initial installation may be expensive, but it's worth not having the aggravation of answering your voice line only to have your ear blasted with the high-pitched sound of a caller's modem. The monthly phone bill will be minimal if you have basic service only. If you can persuade your callers to voluntarily contribute a few dollars, the system could possibly pay for itself.

Some sysops ask for donations to help with the monthly expenses, but don't dive into a BBS with the notion that you will make money. You won't. It's as simple as that. Operating a BBS is a hobby, and trying to make a buck off your users is unrealistic and unfair to them. No one is going to throw money at you for a BBS. People will pay for online services such as Quantum Link, but not for a BBS.

Bare Bones

The second thing to consider is what you'll need in the way of hardware. You can start out with a small but adequate system, consisting of a 64, one disk drive, a monitor, a 300-bps modem, and an optional printer. While you probably already have this much equipment, it would limit the size of the message bases and files available for uploading and downloading. It would, however, give you the experience you need without draining your wallet. Most 64 owners considering a BBS have what is required with the exception of the appropriate software. Let's discuss bare bones for a second. With a basic system, even with an extra disk drive, you'll be limited to a small message base and need to swap numerous disks to give your users a decent selection of software to download. On my first system, I simply changed disks every day. and my users had to take what was available on a given day.

Uploads are a different story. You want users to upload programs that you can share with other callers, but too many uploads can pose a problem. Users can easily crash a small system like this if they fill your disk space with multiple uploads before you have a chance to change disks. You must constantly watch and tend a small system, or you'll be inviting trouble.

The ideal system would be a 64 or 128 with a 2400-bps modem. Some 8-bit systems use modems with higher baud rates, but there are two reasons to stick to a maximum of 2400 baud. First, few if any software packages for the 64 or 128 support higher baud rates, and these computers have difficulty communicating at speeds above 2400 bps. Second, if your callers are mainly other Commodore users, it's unlikely that they'll be using higher baud rates. So a 4800- or 960-baud modem is not cost efficient.

Other items in the ideal system include a high-speed dot-matrix printer and a 20 megabyte or larger hard disk drive. A complete system can be had for under $ 1,000 if you can find a good used one. Even new $I.500 is a reasonable startup price.

Bigger IS Better

Let's take a quick look at a large system. A large system with a 20MB hard drive is easy to maintain, needs little attention, and can store a vast amount of software for your users as well as yourself. Multiple message bases are possible, online games are a snap, and the sheer speed of a hard drive compared to the sluggish 1541 makes using the system a pleasure.

My last system before changing to my Amiga 2000 was a 128 with a 20MB hard drive. The drive, Xetec's Lt. Kernal, communicated with the computer via a parallel bus instead of a serial bus. My users were amazed at the change in speed between the hard drive and the 1541. If you're serious about a BBS and can afford it, I suggest you get a hard drive. The new hard drives from Creative Micro Design are a bit slower, but the advantage is total CBM-DOS compatibility.

BBS Software - scan from Compute Gazette mag, March 1991This Board's for You

As for software, call other bulletin boards to see what they are running. If you find a particular BBS you like, ask the sysop what he or she is using. Most sysops are happy to direct you to a good source of software, whether it's PD, shareware, or commercial.

Before you buy commercial BBS software send away for literature describing the capabilities of the program. There is nothing worse than plunking down money for a software package you end up not using. So research what you want carefully. Try to find one that is reliable—that is, one that's not prone to frequent crashes. (See "BBS Software" for my recommendations.)

Now that you have the hardware and software to get your BBS up and running, you have to make it work. I can't go into specifics of every possible configuration, but I will touch on a few points I've learned along the way. Start out by considering your BBS's primary purpose. Will it be a system where only messages are exchanged, a file-exchange system, or both? Do you want to have online games; if so, does your software support them?

You'll definitely benefit by sitting down with paper and pencil to map the layout of your BBS, its menu structure according to the documentation, and the possible combinations of message bases and transfer sections you intend to have. This is a great timesaver and will save you headaches down the road when you want to reconfigure your setup. Design your menus carefully, if your bulletin board software has that capability.

Know the Password

Before you start your BBS, you should decide whether to make the system open to all callers or require that callers be verified and use a password for access. As a sysop, I want to know who's calling my BBS, even if I let people use fictitious names or handles online. I also strongly suggest using passwords. They'll cut down on the number of hackers trying to crash your board and ensure the privacy of your users' messages and electronic mail.

If you're fussy, you can verify all potential users by making them supply their correct names and addresses by mail. Some sysops ask for a photocopy of a driver's license as proof of a caller's identification. On the other hand, you can simply screen applications for suspicious names and addresses, such as John Doe or 12345 USA Street. I don't usually permit callers full access to my board unless the information they supply is complete and accurate.

If I happen to be at my computer when someone new calls my BBS and registers online, I often get on my voice phone and call the number listed on the application while the caller is still connected. That number should be busy when I call. If it's not, I get suspicious and investigate further.

No Hogs, Please

I suggest you limit your callers to 45 minutes per call and two or three calls per day. If you give everyone unlimited time, you'll find some users abuse the privilege and hog the line so others cannot use the BBS. The same holds true for downloading privileges. Don't give too much, or it will discourage other callers who constantly get a busy signal because someone is downloading program after program.

This includes you. If you hog the system by playing games, people trying to connect will get frustrated. If you want to use your computer for personal use, do so only during slow periods or, in the case of a part-time BBS, during the boards off hours, or buy another computer.

Callers can get discouraged with a BBS if it's difficult to connect, and sysops can get discouraged if people don't call. Don't expect your BBS to overflow with callers the minute you put it online. If you decide to go public, advertise your board's number on other BBSs; make leaflets with The PrintShop, PrintMaster, or a similar package; and distribute copies to bookstores, computer stores, schools, and libraries. During summer months especially, expect a slowdown in logons. Not too many people sit at home calling a BBS on a bright summer day; don't let it discourage you.

Other things can get on your nerves as a sysop. These include users not obeying rules you've established and asking you questions that are plainly explained on the board. Those who simply disconnect instead of properly logging off and who complain because your system doesn't meet their expectations are other examples of callers a sysop can do without.

If you're willing to put up with these relatively minor aggravations, you may be sysop material, especially when you begin to reap the fruits of running a BBS. You'll learn more about computers, have PD and shareware software uploaded to you, communicate with people from all over. Best of all, you don't have to call out; people call you. In closing, the best rewards for me in running a BBS since 1984 are all the appreciative users I've met. They've become more than callers; they've become good friends.

Rick Lembree is the CEO of Harbour Lights Communications, a desktop publishing firm: chief sysop of Harbour Lights BBS, the oldest continuously operating BBS in Maine; chairman of Southern Maine Com modem User Group; and editor of its newsletter. C-Link.

Many thanks to Brian Crosthwaite of Noesis Creation for his help in helping to preserve this golden oldie!

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