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Computer says: Stop using MacWrite II, human!

Machine, rebuild thyself

This Damn War My first proper job was at the university at which I'd been studying; when I graduated in Computing Science there were a couple of tech support jobs going and I managed to bag one of them. I started as the Unix guy (these were the days when SunOS was still SunOS – the Solaris name was yet to come) but later on I gravitated into Mac support.

Back in the early 1990s, System 7 had just been released for the Mac platform. Apple hadn't yet decided the move to the PowerPC processor family but was still using the Motorola 680x0; in fact my core multi-user Sun 3/180s had 68020 CPUs just like the Macintosh LC I managed them from. (Those of you who only remember Intel-based Macs: ask your grandad to reminisce about his Mac Plus with an external 40MB SCSI-connected hard disk).

We had a variety of Mac labs, with a variety of machines. The graphics lab had a fleet of IIfx systems, the programming lab had LC IIs, and the new "dual platform" lab (where we had PCs and Macs and were doing some pretty convincing cross-platform operation) had IIsi boxes. We even got really high-tech with some new Centris 610s and their massive 16-inch colour displays (hey, it was the 1990s: 16 inches of screen was a lot then, particularly if you wanted colour).

All of these systems shared a common problem: students. Those irritating, often grubby individuals who frequent university computer labs and do annoying things like installing pirated software on your computers and throwing away the legitimate applications so they can fit their games and general crap on the rather stingy built-in hard disks.

Our bit of the university was the IT teaching department, and we used the Microsoft Office apps on our Macs. The central computing service was primarily PC- and minicomputer-based (VAX/VMS, if you're wondering), but they did have a small scattering of Mac systems – their word processor of choice was MacWrite II.

Now, this was quite a nice little package to use, but because there weren't many Macs there the students would rip off a copy (those were the days when it would fit on a floppy and didn't need a proper installer to install it) and bring it to our Mac-laden world. They'd bin Word and put on an illegal copy of MacWrite II.

Keith and Steve, a couple of our graduate students (one of whom – Keith – was my Mac-supporting office mate), embarked on a project to play with Mac system event vectors in an attempt to thwart the pirates; the result was a funky little system extension that caught every disk-insert event and checked the floppy for files matching the signature of the MacWrite II application. If it found a copy, it would flash up a Horrible Picture Of Death, crank up the speaker volume and shout: "Stop using MacWrite II" (in a tone not dissimilar to Steve, Keith and me yelling into a microphone) before rebooting the Mac.

I took over Mac support when Keith left, and I soon found myself spending at least a couple of days a week rebuilding Macs – reinstalling system software, reinstalling apps, throwing away junk, and so on. It was a pain in the nuts and it meant that many machines were unavailable for student use. And so I went searching for an answer.

The answer was RevRDist.

Rdist is a Unix tool that you use to push programs and files across a network of similar machines. RevRDist was a Mac application that did the opposite (the clue's in the name). You installed it on each machine and pointed it at a network directory that contained some simple components: a configuration file that described what the disk content of the machine should be, and a repository of the software items it might need to copy down if someone had removed them.

Combined with a simple scheduling app, this allowed each Mac to spring to life in the middle of the night, check itself out, examine the configuration file, throw away unwanted crap, replace illicit files which had been installed with the same name as legitimate system files, and suck down missing apps.

So long as the machine was able to actually boot and see the network drive, you'd come in the next morning and everything would be as it should be – which meant that the only time I had to do a manual install was when someone had thrown away a crucial system file (and even then a simple boot floppy was enough to fire it up and point it at the build directory).

My Mac support requirement dropped like a stone. I was spending less than half a day a week on it, with the occasional completely buggered software image but primarily with proper hardware faults. Student moans of: "It's coursework deadlines and there are five broken Macs" dissolved and I could get on with more interesting stuff.

In these enlightened days, of course, things like remote software distribution and controls that prevent users from doing dumb things are well understood and taken for granted. In the 1990s, though, the same wasn't true: happily I had RevRDist to preserve my sanity and protect me from annoying scumbag students. ®

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