JFI UNIX Systems Support
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Welcome to JFI UNIX!
We are JFI Computing, the IT support group of the James Franck Institute at the University of
Chicago. We have been supporting the UNIX environment in the James Franck Institute and MRSEC
going back to the 1980's, and we manage all the departmental and faculty-owned UNIX servers,
desktops, and computational clusters. (For contact information, see our
help and assistance page.)
Most of the services we provide require you to get a JFI account on our systems. This is not
the same as the CNet userid that you got from the campus. If you need a JFI account, please
stop by our offices in Hinds Hall (HGS-033/HGS-033A), and we'll set one up for you. Accounts are only available
for JFI faculty, postdocs, students, staff, or anyone affiliated in some way with at least one
faculty member at the institute. Accounts are also available for visiting VIP's and scientists.
A long, long time ago, most of the professors in JFI/MRSEC were each running UNIX systems themselves
for their own respective research groups, and giving logins to their students. (I believe this would
have been in the 1980's...long before I started working here...but the stories persist.) At
some point, the faculty decided that it'd be better to hire UNIX systems admins (then called "managers")
to free up their own time for teaching and research, since UNIX was even more time-consuming to setup
and configure in those days than it is now. (And it takes a lot of time even now!) So the first JFI
UNIX managers were hired...
Other departments in the Physical Sciences Division were doing the same thing at this time. The Dean's
office deemed that this investment in departmental IT services was generally a good thing, and thus the
Division contributed toward 50% of the salaries of each sysadmin hired by the various departments, so
that the departments would each only have to pay half. An organization was formed by the newly hired
IT staff called DSM ("Dedicated Systems Managers"), which allowed all of the UNIX admins in the various
departments in PSD (such as JFI) to share technical advice and information. Also, a DSM listserv was
created allowing us to all have access to one another's technical expertise via email whenever systems
problems arose that proved to be terribly vexing. This was a resource for all the department-attached
IT people in the division for many years, and in fact, the DSM listserv still exists.
Up until recently, JFI's equipment (and even some of EFI's) was housed in our server room in RI-147 of
the Research Institutes building. It resided there for over thirty years, and once included an
enormous and extremely noisy mainframe, appropriately named T-Rex. As we moved away from the mainframe
environment and went more and more into Sun machines, our primary server, which did almost everything
on one little machine, was an UltraSPARC 1 named control.uchicago.edu. To this day, there is no
shortage of people around here who remember having JFI accounts on control. T-Rex eventually went
away, and as a consequence of that, some of us slowly got our hearing back. Many generations of UNIX
sysadmins came and went over the years, moving on to other positions with others replacing them. There
were at least eight generations of UNIX managers that I know of, and I don't even have the complete
record of all of them. Most of them worked in pairs, with usually two UNIX support people working at
the institute at any given time period.
In the late 2000's, the Gordon Center was built, and almost all our people moved their offices and labs
over to the new building, which was connected to the RI by a 2nd story catwalk tunnel that went over
57th Street. The UNIX admins stayed, partially because there wasn't any office space left in the Gordon
Center, and partially because the servers stayed too, remaining as they always had been, in RI-147. It
was good for having close physical access to the machines, but our customer service suffered, because it
was now our users (rather than our equipment) that we were having to "access remotely." People were less
apt to informally drop by our offices with problems, or to talk about what they needed, and as a consequence,
the nature of daily business became more and more server-centric, and less user-oriented.
After thirty years of continuous service, the high-volume air conditioning system in the RI-147 server
room was starting to become untrustworthy. Many near-disasters happened when the system unexpectedly
failed, leading to system crashes, and occasionally even hardware failures because of the heat. It
became imperative to find a new cooling solution, which was impossible to do in the existing room,
because there was never a time when the old air conditioner could be shutdown to replace it. That
would have involved shutting down every server in JFI, plus a few EFI Particle Theory Group machines
and some NSIT network routers, all at the same time, for hours during the replacement. That was
clearly impossible to ever arrange.
Fortunately, NSIT and the Physical Sciences Division were working on a project to consolidate all of
the various departmental server rooms to save money, and a new room intended to house the equipment
from all of the DSM sysadmins was being built in the sub-basement of Hinds Hall. For us in JFI though,
this was more than just a financial savings -- we needed a place to move our equipment before the air
conditioning systems died for good. There was no other way for our machines to survive.
Initially, the new room had air conditioning issues too, but that got worked out, and now nearly all
the UNIX sysadmins in DSM have their servers relocated there. Plans are now being talked about to
demolish the RI and move our offices to the basement of Hinds Hall, and this would again put us close
to our machines, but even further from our users than now.
During the machine relocation, a great deal of new rackmount server hardware was purchased, phasing out
many old tired systems from RI-147 that didn't deserve a second life in the new room. Also, many of
the old servers were decommissioned in physical form and replaced by "jailed" virtual servers running
on the new equipment, rather than actual new machines. We are still in the process of modernizing, but
a great deal of our IT infrastructure was improved during the move to HInds Hall.
We hope to continue improving our services in the future. Please let us know if there's something you
think we could change that would benefit the institute.
I first discovered UNIX in 1992, when I got my account on a local "freenet," which was a public
UNIX system being run by Bradley University in Peoria, Illinois.
These freenets were offered as a community service to create a central electronic gathering place for
people, and offered access to the Internet at a time when few had even heard of it outside of academic
and military environments. Many other universities were offering similar freenets in other locations
around the United States, Canada, and Finland, and they encouraged sharing of information between
communities and academic establishments.
The one thing that struck me very quickly at that time was that the Internet was the future, and
that the Internet was built on UNIX. I think I became absorbed in it far more out of personal
interest than out of any intention to base a profession on it, because I didn't actually start
working in the field until 1997, some five years later on.
Since everyone has personal favorites in this area that go along with their personality, I should
probably mention that my three favorite operating systems are Gentoo Linux, FreeBSD, and Debian Linux;
my favorite language is Perl (though I'm getting more and more fond of Python); and my favorite window
manager is FVWM (though I seldom have time anymore to configure it). And...I hate KDE 4.x!
In my personal time, I am a musician, and much of my personal history is involved with that side of me.
Because of this interest, I have been influenced by the various new wave, industrial, gothic,
and electronic/ambient groups of the 1980's, and the German electronic projects like Tangerine Dream
and others in the 60's and 70's that made such wonderful use of Moog modulars, spring reverbs, tape delays,
and other such analog goodness.
At home, I have a project studio and private label called Keycorner Recordings, which includes an
Allen & Heath 32-channel mixing desk, a Roland Jupiter-8 with Midi retrofitted (from 1983), an
Oberheim OB-8 (also 1983), a 1979 Multimoog, and many other vintage instruments and pieces of audio
signal processing gear.
My first instrument was drums, which I played for nine years, but I've had to temporarily give that
up due to living in an apartment, and also just because eviction is just generally bad for life. I also
play keyboards, electric bass, and guitar, all of which have expanded my horizons compared to drums alone,
and all of which are also much less of a problem for my lease.