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About Toxic Laboratory BBS

The history behind Toxic Laboratory BBS is more than just a 'I logged on to one of these BBS things once and want to make my own', so here's a little insight into what makes Toxic Laboratory what it is today.

In 1993, when I was around 11, my parents got a 2400 baud modem from their bank in order to use an online banking system. It used a stand alone DOS program called 'Bankline' to automatically connect to Viewdata and download their latest bank transactions to the PC. A far cry from modern online banking now, but had essentially the same functionality.

My dad had heard about BBS at some point, maybe from films or friends, and we used terminal in Windows 3.1 to call a couple of local BBSes - the numbers of which we obtained from a long-since closed computer shop called The Knowledge Box. Although the mono graphics in Windows terminal were uninspiring (we had no idea about ANSI clients), the BBS community was fun, but the cost of calling them prevented us from getting too into it.

In 1995, we got a 28.8kbps modem for connection to the Internet. Before we actually got an account with an ISP (which turned out to be EasyNet), I wanted to see what I could do with this new toy and pulled out the old BBS number list we had compiled over the previous couple of years. BBSing turned out to be much more enjoyable with such a fast modem, and Windows 95's HyperTerminal even displayed ANSI colours and could download files!

But of course, once the ISP account was set up, exploring the Internet was far more fun until the novelty wore off by the summer when I found a telnet BBS and rekindled my enthusiasm for BBSing. Not long after, I was chatting to friend at school and introduced him to Magic Castle BBS, here in Birmingham and we both got into playing LORD. We told other friends, and there was quite a few of us on Magic Castle in summer 1996. Someone got hold of a copy of the BBS client Terminate 4 which finally allowed us to see ANSI graphics in all their glory, and also had a host mode. This intrigued us all, and we all spent time changing the menus and trying to get our shareware copies of LORD to work.

I found this host mode to be frustrating though, and looked around for other BBS software. I settled on Searchlight, mainly because of the price. When ordering it over the phone, the salesman talked me into going for Wildcat 4 as it was only an extra �20 and (apparently) much better software.

I decided on the name 'The Experience BBS' and started customising and developing my system (DOS single line) on my computer with a view to deploying it on an old 486 computer (which was still in daily use at the time, but soon to be no longer needed). The BBS could only go live when we imminently moved house, and even then, probably only part-time on my dad's fax line. The move happened later than anticipated, and by November 1997, we were in our new house.

By this time, the Internet had taken the lead, and most local BBSes were winding down and going offline for good. Magic Castle had hardly any users left and disappeared soon after, and with the costs of running a PC for so many hours a day, The Experience BBS never got off the ground.

By 2002, I had left home and was living in university halls of residence. It was there I discovered Synchronet. The prospect of this open source telnet BBS once again brought my enthusiasm for BBSing back, and now leaving a computer on 24 hours a day had no financial implication as our electricity bill was included! However, the halls connection was behind a transparent proxy, therefore my IP address was not accessible from outside the university network. I toyed with the idea of setting up a BBS for students, but decided it would be too much of a niche idea and would suffer from too little users - in hindsight, I probably underestimated my potential audience.

In 2003, we moved into a student house and installed our own ad-hoc wireless network using Windows Internet Connection Sharing (ICS) on a dedicated 'server' computer that was going to be always on. I started developing my Synchronet BBS again with the intention of putting it on the ICS server, renaming it 'Liquid BBS' and overhauling the menu systems. But the ICS server proved unreliable and the motherboard died after just a few months. The ICS server role was taken over by a housemate who perpetually downloaded media from P2P sources and the machine was inaccessible to me.

So once again, I was faced with the problem of justifying the cost and hassle of running a PC 24 hours a day to serve a BBS, so the plans got shelved again. I still wanted to run a BBS, and in 2009 purchased a Windows Server 2003 Virtual Private Server (VPS) system, where I proceeded to put together Liquid BBS once and for all.

But the problem I had was that I wanted to use the VPS for other projects and did not want the security potentially compromised by a telnet BBS - I'm sure that Synchronet is secure, but my other projects were too critical to risk and I could not afford another VPS.

Fast forward to 2012, and I was playing LORD on a BBS when I noticed it was running Synchronet for Linux. Rather naively, I assumed Linux BBSes would not be able to run DOS door games and that was a deal breaker for me. So I looked into running Synchronet under Linux and it all appeared easier than I thought it would given that I had had a lot of exposure to command line only Linux in the previous 18 months.

Much of the 2012 Olympic Games were spent in front of the TV watching the games with my laptop redesigning the ANSI menus, finding and installing new doors (not everything will run under DOS emulation in Linux) and getting the system up to scratch. I added many thousands of files typical of 1990s BBSes and then kind of stalled again until May 2013 when my interest was re-kindled and I decided to get back into it. The BBC news feed was converted to a PHP script which could be run on the BBS itself instead of on a remote Windows system (and now took 3 seconds to run instead of 6 minutes as the code is far better optimised), and I made an effort with the menus to finally polish them. I decided that 'Liquid BBS' sounded a little too ultra-modern and that in keeping with a vintage BBS, a non-descript single word was not fitting so 'Toxic Laboratory BBS' was born.

The VPS itself is actually located in Milan, Italy. It was cheap and the provider is very reliable. I am still based in Birmingham, UK and administer it by SSH. I have really enjoyed setting up this opportunity to finally get a viable BBS online and hope you will enjoy it too.

Mark Mearns, July 2013.


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