[TUHS] Of login names

Win Treese treese at acm.org
Sun Jul 17 12:56:57 AEST 2016

This is a rambling story of slight relevance about login names, but otherwise not historically consequential.

At MIT's Project Athena in the mid-80s, we had a bunch of VAXstation 100s, which was DEC's bitmapped display, of which you could hook up two to a VAX 11/750. The X Window System[1] was under development then, but not ready for real usage. (The VAXen were all running 4.2BSD, for what it's worth.)

So someone had the idea to use them for new student registration at the beginning of the semester, since widespread student access was being rolled out to all 4,000 undergrads. A registration program on the 750 talked to the master server with all the login information.

The process was pretty simple. The student entered name and ID number[2]. The registration program suggested a username consisting of:
    first initial, middle initial, up to six characters of last name
which the student could accept, or request a different name. (As far as I remember, there was no filtering on chosen names, and I don't think there was much of a problem with possibly-offensive ones.) The only rule was that the name couldn't already be in use. 

If the name was already in use, the server sent back the string "noid" (for "No ID available") to indicate the problem. The first deployed version of the registration code did not, however, recognize this as an error condition.

As far as we could tell, on of the first time there was a collision on names, the registration program suggested "noid" as the username. And the student accepted it, thus becoming noid at athena.mit.edu for the remainder of his/her undergraduate career.

Of course, the next problem with this was that the registration program could get stuck trying "noid", but it got fixed fairly quickly.

I still remember feeling a touch of panic when I noticed the first name "Athena" on a list of incoming students, since the system was not treating mailing list names as unavailable for usernames. But, of course, all of the mailing lists were also addresses like athena at athena.mit.edu (that was the staff mailing list). That also got fixed pretty quickly.

By the way, xclock was originally written to keep the screensaver from kicking in on the registration VS100s.

 - Win

[1] Flames about X not necessary. 
[2] Security review also not necessary now.

> On Jul 16, 2016, at 12:54 PM, Dave Horsfall <dave at horsfall.org> wrote:
> Time to start a new thread :-)
> Back when Unix was really Unix and dinosaurs strode the earth, login names 
> were restricted to just 8 characters, so you had to be inventive when 
> signing up lots of students every term (ObUS: semester).
> A wonderful Japanese girl, Eriko Kinoshita, applied for an account on some 
> box somewhere.  Did I mention that login names defaulted to the first 8 
> characters of the surname?
> Understandably annoyed, Plan B for assigning logins was applied, which was
> the first name followed by the first letter of the surname.
> Sigh...
> -- 
> Dave Horsfall DTM (VK2KFU)  "Those who don't understand security will suffer."

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