Thursday, March 24, 2011

Unix shell accounts

When the Internet was in its infancy, the way people accessed it was frequently through what was called a Unix shell account. People would dial in, or connect via their internal network (frequently not a TCP/IP network), and then run Internet clients on the remote computer. "Internet clients"?

Well, the web didn't really take off until the mid-nineties, and back then the main systems for communication on the Internet were email and various discussion forum systems. At the time, email was text only, so it was easy to log in to a remote computer, an email client, and use it, just using a text-based "terminal emulator."

Why did we do that? Because it was easy to set up. Because it was hard to get full network stacks for personal computers, and even if you had them, running these stacks over a modem was torturous, back when the fastest modems ran at 2400bps.

The move towards connecting personal computers directly to the Internet opened up many possibilities, and the web in particular became possible and useful when we finally started doing that. Did we lose anything by moving away from shell accounts? Well, not a lot. But there were certain advantages to having one, as you had a private location, separate from your computers, reachable from anywhere.

Today I'd guess the nearest equivalent would be a VPS. Virtual Private Servers are complete servers, with their own operating systems and storage, you can rent. The "Virtual" comes from the implementation - most are implemented as virtual computers running on a much bigger server, but for all intents and purposes you can treat each instance as a computer you own.

And you can set up shell accounts on those computers.

There are a wide variety of VPS providers out there. Right now I use - that's not an endorsement as such, it happens to be the one I use and they seem reliable to me, but I recommend you investigate the available options.

Setting up a VPS takes a little bit of time, though not as much as you might think, but once set up you have a server you can use an ssh client like OpenSSH, Putty, or, on Android, ConnectBot, from wherever you are. Email clients like PINE can be used to read email, although you'll need to set something up to collect that email. There's even a couple of web browsers that work over a text-based shell interface; confusingly one's called Lynx and the other is called Links.

You can upload files and download them using SSH's SCP system. And you can even set up a web server if you want.

What do you get with this all set up? A private space, out there on the Internet, accessible from wherever you are.

No comments:

Post a Comment