Classic Computer Magazine Archive COMPUTE! ISSUE 145 / OCTOBER 1992 / PAGE 6

How to start a BBS. (computer bulletin board service; includes related articles)
by George Campbell

Want to start a personal or business BBS? There's no time like the present to get started

If you use commercial online systems or local BBS services, chances are good you've considered starting a BBS yourself. Why not? It's a rewarding and exciting way to get even more involved in computing, and it lets you participate in a personal way in the growing telecommunications field.

According to current es[imate.s, there are over 20,000 BBSs operating in the United States. Just about every community of any size has at least one, and there's always room for more. If you'd like to be the next person to offer online services, here's a guide to hardware and software, as well as what you can expect to encounter when you rum your own system.

A Potpourri of Services There are really only three basic kinds of BBSs: personal systems, group support systems, and business systems. Personal systems are usually operated as a hobby by an individual, running right out of a home. These hobby systems make up the bulk of the BBS community. Their sysops offer everything from general message and file transfer services to special interest systems dedicated to any hobby or avocation you can imagine. Typically, these systems charge no fee for access and operate on a freewheeling basis, with each system reflecting the interests and personality of the sysop.

Group support systems' offer online services to members of clubs and organizations. Most PC user groups have BBSs dedicated to supporting their members, and other organizations are also beginning to offer BBS services to their computer-using members. These systems serve as message centers and are places where members can get help and download files relating to the organization's goals. Usually, access to these systems is limited to members of the sponsoring group.

Finally, more and more businesses, large and small, are going online with BBS services. Just about every software publisher now has a customer support BBS, and local computer stores also find that running a BBS makes good economic sense. Mail-order firms use BBSs to take orders and provide support for their customers. Computer-related businesses are still the most frequent operators of these systems, but the trend is starting to spread as more and more people get online. A typical non-computer-oriented system might offer support, for a fee, to a city's real-estate agents. The possibilities are almost endless.

What You Need to Get Started If you've decided that it's time for you to go online with your own system, planning should be your first consideration. Start by assessing what you need to get going. It's not a long list, but you'll definitely need every item.

First of all, you need a genuine desire to be a sysop. After that, you need enough knowledge about telecommunications and modems to feel comfortable with terms like initialization string and AT commands. If you're still struggling with online systems as a user, you'll want to wait a bit until you get more familiar with the online environment.

The next requirement is hardware. If you're going to run a simple BBS with just one phone line, that old XT you've pushed aside will do the job. You'll need at least a 40MB hard disk, but any monitor will do, and you won't need tons of memory. On the other hand, if you want to run a multiline system that offers access to multiple callers simultaneously, plan on using at least a 386 machine with a 200MB hard disk and several megabytes of memory.

Naturally, you'll need a modem. A 2400-bps modem is the bare minimum these days, and a 9600-bps modem is even better. It's a matter of cost; a good generic 2400-bps unit should cost less than $75, while the faster modem will set you back over $300. Whichever speed you choose, make certain that your modem is completely compatible with the Hayes standard, or you'll run into trouble. Most 9600bps BBSs use modems from U.S. Robotics; they've become the standard in the BBS community.

Next, you'll need a phone line dedicated to the BBS. You could try to share your regular voice phone line with a BBS, but it seldom works out. Fortunately, the cost for installing an additional phone line is usually less than $50 for a hobby system, and you won't have to pay any special rates to the phone company. However, if you charge your users a fee for access to your system or use the BBS in a business setting, the phone company will insist that you use a business line, costing an average of $50 per month.

One need often ignored by wouldbe sysops is time. Running a busy BBS takes a minimum of one hour each day just to answer E-mail and to keep the BBS running smoothly. Once a week or so, a typical hobby BBS sysop spends additional time backing up the system's hard disk, either to floppy disks or to a tape backup system. If your BBS will offer public' domain software and shareware, you can count on spending an additional few hours per week adding and updating files. Finally, you'll spend an occasional day installing a new version of the BBS software or dealing with the inevitable hardware crash.

The final need, and possibly the most important, is a BBS program. Your choice here will determine a lot of things, including the time needed to set up the system the first time, the way users interact with your system, and the time you spend maintaining your BBS.

The Best BBS Software

A mark of the popularity of BBSs is the bewildering number of BBS programs available. There are literally scores of programs to tempt you, with a fantastic range of prices and capabilities. Your choice here will be critical, since switching from one program to another is usually just like starting from scratch. You'll need to spend time investigating the programs before making a choice.

The range is wide, both in price and capabilities. You'll find everything from free but powerful software like RBBS to software like TinyHost, which is limited to just a few users, to expensive multiline systems costing hundreds of dollars. The most popular programs are offered as shareware, so you can try out the software before laying out your cash. Our shopper's guide lists some of the most popular BBS programs, but there are many others available for downloading on commercial online systems. On CompuServe, BBS software is in the IBMBBS forum. If you use GEnie or America Online, the keyword is BBS.

A BBS without callers is next to useless. To compete for users with the systems already available in most areas, you have to make your system easy, useful, and exciting, or your potential users will call another BBS. Your first priority should be to check out prospective programs by calling systems that use those programs. Fortunately, just about every BBS software publisher operates a demonstration BBS. Look for numbers for the most popular programs in the shopper's guide. Before making a decision, give potential programs a thorough test as a user.

The software you choose also needs to be easy for the sysop. Assessing that ease of use can be a bit more difficult, but there is a way. When you check out the demonstration BBSs and trim your list to a few possibilities, look for a list on the demonstration system of BBSs that use that software. Call a BBS near you that uses the software, and ask the sysop what it's like to use it. Most sysops like the software they're running, but you can ask leading questions to get a pretty clear picture of what the system is like from the sysop's perspective.

After following these steps, you'll have cut the list down to one or two programs. The next step is to obtain either a shareware version of each program or the demonstration version offered by the publisher. Then it's time to test each one by installing it and running a limited version of your BBS for a short time. You'll finally settle on a single program, but whatever you do, don't be tempted to use an unregistered or pirated copy of the software; at some point, you're going to need' support from the publisher.

Preparing for the First Call

With the software selected, it's almost time for your first caller. First, though, you need to set up your system. The more time you spend on system design, the better your BBS will run. It's often difficult to make major changes once you get started, so take time now to get it right. A few hours spent in the planning stage will save you countless hours later.

Start by working out what your system is going to offer its callers. Will you have files available? Messaging? Email? How about informational bulletins and online newsletters? Will all your users have access to every part of the BBS, or will you need several security levels to control what different users can do? If it's a business system, will you be taking customer orders on the BBS? Most BBS software can allow users to page you while they're online. Decide whether you want to be interrupted and, if so, during what hours. It's best to answer all these questions on paper before you start configuring the software.

Mail, Public and Private

Every BBS offers messaging services. Since most programs allow you to break down messages into categories, you'll want to consider what subject each message area will handle. Be sure to set aside one area for you alone. Messages that go into that area should be private, readable only by the sysop.

E-mail services are popular, allowing your users to send private messages back and forth. In most BBS software, however, the sysop can read all messages, even those that are marked as private.

File Transfers

A BBS without file transfer capabilities is almost sure to fail. Every user wants to dig around, looking for programs and other files, even on business systems. As with messaging, you'll want to break down your files into carefully chosen categories to make it easier for users to locate files.

Downloading files from your BBS is one thing; uploading files is another. Whatever you do, don't allow users to upload files into areas where they can be immediately downloaded by other users. All files uploaded to your BBS should go into a private directory so you can check them before making them available. You'll need to delete commercial programs and check for virus infections on every file you receive.

Bulletins and Other Messages

Before going online, you'll also need to create the bulletins, help screens, and other display screens needed by your new users. Nothing can kill a BBS faster than a lack of information. Users who call but can't figure out how to use the system simply won't call back. Take as much time as you need to write brief but complete bulletins that explain your system; then make them readily available to users. Unless you're a writing wizard, be sure to run a spelling checker on these information screens and proofread them carefully.

Maintaining Security

You can create as many access levels for your users as you like (within the limits of your software), but there are some basic things to consider. First, never allow anyone but yourself complete access to the BBS. Users should be kept away from sysop functions and should never be allowed to view user data that contains passwords or other private information. If your BBS offers a way for a remote user to drop from the BBS to the DOS prompt, make sure you're the only one who can do this, or you risk intentional or accidental file deletions or even a complete formatting of your hard disk. Finally, never use the same password on your own BBS that you use on other systems, or you risk disaster from a malicious user.

You'll also need a special security level for first-time callers. Legally, you need to confirm that all callers have provided their real names and addresses or telephone numbers. Typically, sysops restrict new users to a very limited subset of services until they're confirmed with a phone call.

Once those two basic security levels are established, you can add as many other access levels as you need, assigning a caller to the one which is most appropriate after his or her first call.

Salting the Mine

You don't want your first-time callers to find an empty system, so you'll want to seed the system before going online. Create an introductory message for each message area, explaining that area, and add a few files to each file area. This will make your BBS more attractive to new callers, and it will help to ensure that they call, back.

Those are the basic setup tasks you need to perform before your first call comes in. Remember, though, that you'll probably want to modify your BBS once you're up and running, adding features or streamlining your setup. Because of this, you should set up blank message areas, file directories, and security access levels, keeping them hidden from users and in reserve for later use. It's always easier to do this before going online.

Online for the First Time

Once you have your system configured for startup as described above, it's time to fire it up. Still, there's one more thing to do before you go public: You need to test your completed system thoroughly yourself. Get your BBS running; then call it from another computer, pretending to be a new user. Make sure everything works as you planned and make any necessary changes.

Next, if you have multiple security levels, create dummy users for each level and then call the BBS, signing on as each of those users. Again, test everything thoroughly to make sure the system runs smoothly. Once you're done, be sure to delete these dummy users to avoid confusion.

Check every part of the BBS, from leaving E-mail and public messages to uploading and downloading files. Try every help screen and bulletin. All this takes time, but it's almost certain that you'll catch plenty of errors during this process. It's better to fix them before your first caller is online.

Fishing for Users

Finally! You've done all the testing, you've finished your setup, and you're ready for callers. But how will people know your BBS exists? Depending on the function of your system, there are several ways to attract callers. If it's a public hobby system, one of the best techniques is to place messages on other BBSs in your area, announcing your new system. That method will get you started. You can also ask other sysops to include your BBS in their online BBS listings.

If your BBS supports a club or user group, publish the phone number in the group's newsletter and make announcements at meetings. One note here: It's a good idea to include basic instructions for getting online in your announcements.

If you're starting a business BBS, your best bet is to notify your customers in as many ways as you can. Include the number in your ads, send out flyers or postcards to regular customers, and offer simple instructional information to all customers who ask for it. Remember that your customers may not be familiar with online services.

Don't be concerned if things start off slowly. In fact, a slow start allows you to fix any problems that show up before you have hundreds of callers.

Keeping Your BBS Alive

Once you're online and have a growing list of callers, your work is really just beginning. The long-term success of your system depends on how hard you work at keeping calls coming in. Here are a few basic tips:

1. Don't let your BBS get stale. Add new files for downloading and keep updating versions of the public domain software and shareware available on your system. Keep the message areas up-to-date by deleting old messages.

2. Answer your mail. You'll get a lot of messages from your users. If you fail to.reply, they'll stop calling, so try to respond to every message within 24 hours.

3. Introduce new features. By offering your callers new and interesting things to do on your system, you'll keep them calling back.

4. Be responsive. If your users have complaints or request changes in your system, give these suggestions careful consideration.

5. Practice safe BBSing. Be on the lookout for users who cause trouble on your system, and advise them to stop unpleasant activities. If they persist, you'll need to delete their accounts. It only takes one or two troublemakers to drive away your users.

Advanced BBS Features

While most BBSs succeed nicely with just the basic services, there are three popular additions you can make to your BBS once it's running smoothly.

Door programs. There are hundreds of special programs you can add to your system. Door programs run alongside your BBS, giving your callers modem access to games, information databases, and more. You'll find many of these programs in-the BBS forums of CompuServe and other online services.

Net mail. Several networks exist to link up BBSs all over the country. These systems let your users exchange messages with any other users on the network. Your system will call the network automatically once a day to send and receive messages. The most popular of these systems is FIDONET. You can get information on joining a network by calling any BBS on the network.

Multiple lines. If running a BBS becomes more than just a hobby for you or if your system just gets too busy, you may want to consider adding additional phone lines. Most .contemporary BBS software allows this. You'll need more equipment, additional phone lines, and more time, but your users will appreciate fewer busy signals and the ability to chat with each other online.

Logging Off

Running a BBS isn't for everyone. It takes a lot of work, but the experience of being a sysop on a busy BBS offers a kind of satisfaction that's hard to find in any other field. If you enjoy communicating with others and are willing to give up a little time each day, running your own BBS could easily become a very important part of your life.