Tuesday, August 26, 2008

The Ghost of LabMan Past

At some point, I'll finish writing-up a retrospective of the 20 years of academic and administrative computing that I've been a part of here at The University of Texas at Austin, but, for the moment, I just want to throw out a few screen shots of one the earlier software development efforts (1988) of the long-disbanded Microcomputer Support Group (MSG) of the not-quite-so-long-gone U.T. Austin Computation Center. It was a Macintosh application called LabRegister which was used by our proctors to manage our microcomputer lab (and later, labs). It evolved from, and replaced, a HyperCard stack developed by one of the lab proctors, Kee Kimbrell (now a big-shot somewhere). After many more stages of evolution, it became "LabMan", which the The University sells to this day. (And which a number of us around here want to see open-sourced.)

(I was able to run LabRegister again for the first time in ages by using the "minivmac" Macintosh emulator. The screenshots are all, therefore, modern, and show it running under System 7, which didn't exist in 1988 when we used this LabRegister application. But it's close enough, and the original Macintosh 512 X 342 screen size is correct. Note that while the original Mac screen seems unbelievably tiny these days, it still had more pixels than, say, the iPhone currently does.)

My friend and colleague William Green offers the following background: "The primary function initially was allocating machines to users and tracking their usage. There were long waits to get computer access back then. People were required to sign up on paper forms, and those were entered later by hand to generate usage statistics. The Hypercard and later application automated the sign-up and allocation process. The statistics helped to justify lab upgrades and expansions. It changed over time from a manual process by proctors entering data, to users entering data and fully automated. Eventually it did a lot more than track usage, and was actually used to manage the computers themselves."

The "about box". At the time, the man in charge of the MSG, G. Morgan Watkins, insisted that no individual be given credit for any software produced. This "about box" was a fiercely contested compromise that acknowledged Kee Kimbrell's original work, but not my authorship of this particular program. Instead, the entire core staff of the group was credited with authorship, even though some of them weren't even computer programmers.

To Morgan's credit in this context, he insisted that the computers in our labs be networked. Believe it or not, that was a contested issue, with folks outside of the MSG insisting that the Computation Center's serial communications system, MICOM, was all that the lab computers could possibly need.

The main screen, representing our original microcomputer lab in Taylor Hall room 103, circa 1988, which sat roughly where the 24th street entrance to the ACES building currently sits. The icons represent the newly released Macintosh SE and Macintosh II models, although I believe the actual lab was probably still a mix of Mac Pluses, Mac 512Ks, and IBM PCs.

The dialog box for marking machines as down, so the proctors wouldn't assign users to them.

The dialog box showing the status of a machine, in this case one whose ROMs had died.

To understand that there was some significance to the existence of the MSG, the microlab, and this piece of software, it's important to be aware that those of us who argued (and quite passionately) that microcomputers had a useful place to fill in campus computing, and one that made some of the other systems irrelevant, were the young turks that nobody took seriously. We were absolutely right, of course, but in those days it was a constant a fight. These days, of course, most of what were once mainframe tasks are now executed on microcomputer hardware, even if it is stuck in a rack in a machine room somewhere.

Chris Cooley Remembers

[My additions and deletions are in brackets. --CWJ]

I remember also proctors having to carry around a clipboard to scribble consulting info, then enter them using the "TSR" [terminate and stay resident] style application on IBM PCs. That was even after the move to FAC [Flawn Academic Center] 29. And that "materials" field in LabRegister for things such as diskettes containing applications for the second floppy drive, MacWrite documentation, etc.

I don't recall how the DOS waiting list was accessed by the proctors to get the next user. Was it only a data entry program?

Oh, and the joy of users not in possession of their UT EID for us to confiscate while they used the lab. Especially after having waited a while.

Otherwise I'm drawing a blank on "all the important stuff" as William termed it. I'm thinking that we've pretty much described how it was before the move to FAC 2nd floor and the advent of LabMan. That's when station assignments, integrated printing, IF accounts, station logons generating usage stats, the "spend" command, PRS, etc, came about. (Oops, I think I might have reminded Chris about LaserWriter 8 driver hacking.) [Hacking the LaserWriter driver's binary to remove the AppleTalk communications stack and substitute our own print-intercepting code is not forgotten. It was a neat hack, but I never want to do anything like it again.]

On LabMan, we're waiting for [....] a letter that simply informs OTC [Office of Technology Commercialization] that ITS [Information Technology Services] will be making it free & open source. I'd like to immediately change the pricing. Distribution of the source will have to wait, as we add licensing & disclaimers, remove the registration number code, evaluate security implications to existing labs by exposing the client-server communications details, etc.

Larry Liberty Remembers

[My additions are in brackets. --CWJ]

I did the TSR [terminate and stay resident] consult recording application (a quality Turbo Pascal program).

For the DOS waitlist, I believe there was the sign-up box (by the door) and another one behind the proctor desk. They were on PC LAN (remember those the huge white coax cables?). Through a shared file, users could add themselves to the list and the proctors could "pop" them off the list. The sign-up and assignment times were recorded so that the waiting time for a station could be determined.

And there was laser printing in FAC 29 [Flawn Academic Center, room 29]. Chris lead the way with LabUser [UserInfo]. (or something like that, I liked the "abuser" part of the name [officially, that stood for "Apple Bus User", since "Apple Bus" was Apple's original name for its AppleTalk networking system]). And I had a Novell Netware based print server solution for PC laser printing. That was followed by a Windows 3.1 integrated printing package. Both required having Unix accounts. William pushed through the whole IF accounts concept (give the users a way to spend money, please!) and IF accounts were already around during the FAC 29 days.

PRS came on-line shortly before the SMF [Student Microcomputer Facility] opened (because the Unix boxes couldn't handle that many IF accounts and IF accounts were required now for lab station logon). So we were required to move laser printing to the VMS machines (PRS), which could handle all the accounts.

It's good to hear LabMan might be open source (it should have been that way from the start).

1 comment:

  1. UGH, the waiting list program, I remember that - *I* wanted to call it "LabQueue" but it became "Waitlist". Written in Modula-2 (because that was what I was learning in CS classes at the time...)

    -Don Loflin