No matter how hard I try, I cannot come up with an adjective that better describes the month of July here at mud2.com. Trouble arrived on the first day of the month and from then on, things were going downhill ... for some time anyway.
July 1 of course is Canada's national holiday, Canada Day: we were celebrating the 130th birthday of our great northern country. Coincidentally, this was also the 500th anniversary of the discovery by a fellow named John Cabot of what is today called Newfoundland. The ceremonies were attended by Queen Elizabeth whose horse-drawn carriage drove by our home on the morning of Canada Day, en route to the celebrations on Parliament Hill.
Sadly, my monarchist feelings notwithstanding, I didn't have much time to enjoy the day. A couple of hours after we had the good fortune of seeing Queen Elizabeth (or her carriage at least) from our balcony, the telltale sound of a modem's repeated attempts to dial informed me that something was wrong: our favourite game was no longer connected to the Internet. A quick phone call to the ISP's support number confirmed the problem but also revealed the oddest twist: as a result of a developing ownership dispute, one of the ISP's owners who's also its main technical guru found himself locked out of the company's premises, while the other owner and his team were desperately trying to gain control of computer systems that they didn't have the master passwords for.
This could not have happened at a worst time. First of all, it was totally impossible to do anything to rectify this situation on a holiday afternoon. Second, I was swamped with work, with several deadlines to beat: not only did I have little time to spare to fix the problem, all my other work depended on a functioning Internet link to the outside world as well!
That said, this was also a contingency that was not entirely unanticipated (although I didn't quite expect it to happen this way.) The next workday, July 2, I contacted UUNet Canada, a company that I dealt with in the past, and told them of my intentions to establish a high-speed ISDN link through their facilities.
UUNet Canada claims to be the oldest commercial Internet service provider in Canada. I have dealt with them over three years ago when I first established Internet connectivity for my home office network, vttoth.com. After a year or so, I decided to move to another ISP, because UUNet Canada did not live up to its promises: service was extremely expensive at $6 (Canadian) an hour when flat-rate providers were already appearing on the market, service quality was poor (take for instance the case of a modem in their local modem pool that for many months answered calls at 2400 bps - unattended transfer of a few hundred kilobytes worth of mail and news can be expensive indeed at that speed with their hourly rate!) and after-hours technical support was available only to "dedicated" customers.
A lot has changed in two years. UUNet Canada today maintains a 45 Mbit DS3 backbone to Ottawa, several international crossovers to backbone networks in the US, and has competent 24-hour technical support. Best of all, they are the backbone: no more of this silly business of connecting through intermediaries with unreliable service.
As you can imagine, switching to a new Internet provider is not easy at the best of times. It's extremely difficult if one wishes to coordinate the activities of a number of different parties while maintaining 24-hour connectivity for a live service.
First, I had to get ISDN service from Bell Canada. Since I did not wish to have a completely new line installed but rather, I wanted to convert the existing, analog line used to connect the game server, I had to temporarily route the game through my "regular" data line and Internet connection. Bell's repairman arrived when promised, and after resolving a problem on the head office side, he managed to set up the ISDN line without further problems.
UUNet Canada was a different issue altogether. For starters, I had to make a decision about the network configuration: do I want to use just one "B" channel (a 64 kbit ISDN channel, of which two are available on an ISDN line) or both? If both, shall I have them "aggregated" (to appear as a single 128 kbit connection) or shall I split them and dedicate them to different roles? The factors to influence my decision were part technical, part financial.
My preference would have been to use the two "B" channels separately, and dedicate one strictly to the game. Unfortunately, this solution, although feasible, would have been technically complex and significantly more expensive than the solution I eventually chose: 2 aggregated "B" channels for a 128 kbit connection. I admit, my decision was also influenced by the fact that UUNet Canada had a promotional plan that meant a free ISDN router, worth several hundred dollars, for new 128 kbit customers. Monthly charges are also less this way. As it turns out, my initial concerns were largely unfounded: even if I put the connection under heavy load (for instance, by transferring a file from UUNet's own ftp server at full speed) interactive response still remains good, with reasonable echo times and no data loss. Therefore, the little additional demand that my Internet use and the mud2 Web page put on the connection will have a negligible effect for players.
Picking the right network architecture, however, represented just one of my problems. Ensuring proper routing for my network was an equally significant issue.
Many of you familiar with Internet technology know that these days, if you connect a LAN to the Internet, your ISP will assign you a network address from a pool of addresses called an address block. This address block is assigned to the ISP and cannot be transferred; if you wish to switch providers, you must also reconfigure your IP network with a set of new addresses, which may mean significant downtime.
That said, you can call me lucky: my original Internet connection predates the policy of address blocks (3 years of continuous existence in the rapidly changing world of the Internet makes my home office network a prehistoric beast.) Thus, my IP addresses are freely transferable. But actually transferring them with minimal disruption was another issue altogether. As it turned out, my old ISP no longer uses a dynamic routing facility that would have allowed a seamless transfer; instead, I had to track down a rather grumpy, but helpful, chap at Sprint Canada's network operations center in British Columbia, who finally managed to remove "static" routing entries for my network. Because of this, for about a day and a half, about 20-30% of the Internet could not connect to mud2.com, and this of course meant that several players were cut off from the game temporarily.
In addition to the main issue of routing, a number of lesser problems such as Domain Name Service (DNS) and e-mail routing also had to be solved. To make a long story short, all was ready to rock and roll on July 16: that morning, a few hours after the router arrived, I had the connection up and running with UUNet Canada, and the next day the above-mentioned routing problem was also solved. Or so I thought at the time, but the next day, I was hit by an outage for about 20 minutes, and the day after that, UUNet Canada's Ottawa facilities were out for a period of over 6 hours! I was beginning to regret my decision to pick this provider, despite their repeated assurances that this was the first time in years that such a significant unplanned outage affected this area. Fortunately, I did not experience any difficulties since then: the connection has been up and running for over three weeks now, with only one 3-minute interruption during the entire period.
While setting up the new connection consumed a significant amount of my time last month, it was far from being the only issue I had to deal with in the game.
One of my saddest duties as an arch-wiz is when I have to exercise my authority to its fullest extent in order to stamp out cheating. Not that this happens often, thank goodness: most people are here to play an honest game. But sometimes the temptation is apparently just too strong to resist. This was the case earlier in July when I discovered that two of our players regularly engaged in what is called multilining.
For those of you not familiar with the term, multilining is communication between two personae outside the game for the purpose of gaining an advantage within the game. It is easy to see why such activity is patently unfair. Consider, for instance, what happens if player X attacks player Y while Y's friend, player Z, is also in the game. Player X may know of their friendship and may carefully dumb player Y prior to initiating his attack, to ensure that player Y cannot ask his buddy to help. However, if players Y and Z are communicating outside the game, the strategy is useless.
What is important to realise is that communication outside the game can take many forms. The two personae can in fact be run by the same player simultaneously; in this case, "communication" takes place inside the player's head, by virtue of the fact that what one persona knows, the other will know as well. Communication outside the game can be verbal (two players playing while talking on the phone) but it can also be electronic (two players communicating with an Internet chat line) and it doesn't have to be two-way either (one player monitoring another's computer.)
Hopefully, there won't be many instances in the future when I need to deal with situations like this. I also hope that the players involved understood the reason why their actions drew punishment and will be able to continue playing and enjoy themselves in the virtual world of our Land.
Apart from some other minor incidents, I also had to deal with the loss of Starquest as editor of this newsletter. As mentioned in the Editorial, I temporarily assumed all editorial duties of the Chronicles, at least until another editor is found. Once again, Starquest, thanks for your work to date!
Needless to say, while all this was going on I also had other projects I needed to worry about. (You didn't think the $30 a month MUD2 subscription fees were enough to set me up for an early retirement, did you?) One such project, a Windows application of considerable complexity, was long overdue when I finally managed to get to the point where I was able to cut a CD-ROM we could rightfully call the "Release Candidate." I also had to review some material for my publisher. Last but not least, all these Internet problems with my ISP not only affected my own systems but two others as well: I maintain the Internet connection for the Canadian Cancer Society's Ottawa office and a local consulting company on a contract basis. As you can imagine, they were not amused.
I'm glad to say that this is all behind me now. During the second half of July, I managed to stay indoors for over two weeks, working 18-hour days: not anymore. Last week, I even managed to waste a few hours with a CD-ROM game called The Last Express: although it has a few shortcomings (such as a fairly linear plotline and a few silly fight sequences that serve no useful purpose other than providing a chance to practise for your Nintendo skills) the game did a remarkable job recreating the atmosphere of a trans-European train ride. In the early 1980s I travelled on international express trains a lot myself between Austria, Hungary and Romania. It was not at all unlike the few days I spent now on the last Orient Express of 1914 on an adventurous journey from Paris to Constantinople on the eve of World War I.
August is supposed to be a quiet month, giving me a chance to catch up on a number of things, many of them game-related. One thing I was already able to accomplish is the "repatriation" of the MUD2 Web page: it is now available at http://www.mud2.com.
This Web page copyright © 1997
Viktor T. Toth