- Annual Meeting
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by Barry Shell
So long and thanks for all the…science. I’ve worked at Simon Fraser University (SFU), the Tok’ra home world for all you Stargate fans, since 1987, and SFU has supported what is probably the oldest website about Canadian science, science.ca, which I launched in 1995.
But now that I’m retired it was time to move science.ca. One day early this month (August 2013) I drove up Burnaby Mountain to get the old science.ca PC out of a closet on the tenth floor of the Applied Sciences building. SFU is on top of a 300 meter high mountain in the middle of a municipal park, and I’ve been making my way up that mountain for 26 years. This would be one of the last times. Think about it. Science.ca is approaching its 20th anniversary. The Web has been around that long.
The site is operated by the GCS Research Society, a registered BC society created in 1993 to promote the research of great Canadian scientists. At that time nobody was doing this. There were few books about Canadian science, and not even a list of Canadian winners of the Nobel prize in science. Nobelprize.org did not exist. And science.gc.ca (the Canadian government’s science portal) did not come online until about 2003.
I owe a lot to Simon Fraser University for supporting the creation and maintenance of science.ca for all these years. Back in the 1990s, the Faculty of Applied Sciences where I worked was an early adopter of Sun brand Unix computer workstations. We had an advanced computer network, which became one of the early parts of the Internet in the late 1980s. By 1995 with the advent of the World Wide Web and especially web browsers like Mosaic and Netscape, I began creating some of Canada’s first websites. At one point I managed a team of six part time student programmers, designers and artists making websites for professors to show off their research labs.
Around that time I was lucky enough to get a couple of grants for a project that went beyond the SFU work. The idea was to catalog Canada’s greatest scientists at the time. The Great Canadian Scientists project resulted in a couple of books, a CD-ROM, and a website. Shortly after the Internet Domain Name System (DNS) was developed, we applied for and received the name science.ca. In those days it was free.I used some grant money to buy a simple PC to be the science.ca web server and SFU was kind enough to let us connect it to the network for a nominal fee of $25/yr. (After about 10 years they stopped sending bills.) That computer was upgraded more than once over the 18 years it pumped bits over the Internet.
The one I was coming to disconnect had been running continuously since February 2007. At the time, I think I paid about $400 for it. No screen or keyboard, it just sits there, connected by an ethernet cable to SFU’s network.
I fumbled in my bag for the key to the little room where science.ca lived, a tiny windowless closet with a jumbled mess of old electronic gear. Old laser printers. Tons of old PCs stacked about 4 feet high. Old CRT monitors. All piled on top of one another. There’s also a giant power conditioner in there, a large humming metal box that makes nice clean electricity for the engineering and computing science researchers. I had to climb up onto old scrap computers to get to the science.ca box, which was flashing away high at the back of the pile. By this time, all traffic had been diverted to a new web server, and this one could be unplugged.
It was a bit of a challenge finding a company to host science.ca. The site is run as a hobby and the society is non-profit, so the idea was to find something low cost. Unfortunately, many of the “Canadian” $4.95/mo hosting offerings actually subcontract services from larger providers in places like Houston or Las Vegas. Picture huge server farms in air-conditioned warehouses. Call me nationalistic, but I wanted science.ca to be physically located in Canada.
Nowadays, most websites are not even running on dedicated machines. Instead, computer service providers have come up with something called a “Virtual Machine.” Modern computers are so powerful they can run hundreds of such virtual machines in software. So web hosting services sell you one of these imaginary “boxes”, including a large amount of memory space, a connection to the Internet, and all the standard software you need to run a website, pre-installed.
But even that is too expensive, starting at about $25/mo, and it’s more than we need to run science.ca. The cheapest option today is what’s called a *shared* virtual server, and that’s where we moved the website, thanks to a local company called Canadian Web Hosting. They promise that the server is in Richmond, BC.What a change. This is the new way. No physical box for science.ca anymore. A shared virtual machine is a level of abstraction that’s almost impossible for me to comprehend, but it’s cheap. Only about $6/mo, and that includes more memory and Internet bandwidth than we’ll ever need. In fact the company is waving the fee in return for a listing on science.ca‘s sponsor list.
Beginning in June, and with the help of a student who has been working now and then on science.ca since he was about 16 — he’s now a grad student at U. Waterloo — we moved all the science.ca files over the Internet from the old PC box in the equipment closet at SFU to the virtual server at Canadian Web Hosting. With a bit of tweaking, and lots of testing, everything is now working very well. In some ways the situation has improved thanks to better web usage stats. For instance, the main search term that brought visitors to science.ca earlier this month was “Tony Pawson.” He passed away suddenly at the age of 60 on August 7, and immediately after that everyone came to science.ca to read his biography.
One surprising consequence in the days immediately after the move was the torrent of junk email that began appearing. I would get a “I need a hot guy like you” or a “Kick Start Your Weight Loss” message every five minutes. It was overwhelming. Turned out that SFU had been filtering all of science.ca’s email through a service called “Barracuda” that stripped out all the junk mail. With that gone, things went crazy. Fortunately Canadian Web Hosting had something called “Spam Assassin” that I turned on with a few mouse clicks, and all the spam went away.
In the Applied Sciences storage room last week, I opened my laptop and logged in over SFU’s wifi network to the Ubuntu Linux server running on the old whirring science.ca machine in front of me. I issued the Unix “halt” command, and the computer displayed a message: “The system is shutting down immediately.” That was it for science.ca at Simon Fraser University. Actually, the computer network administrators had to make some changes in the DNS tables as well, but that is a minor detail. Thank you SFU for all those years. Long live science.ca at Canadian Web Hosting.
Stay tuned for the 20th Anniversary party in May 2015.
Barry Shell is a Vancouver freelance writer. He created www.science.ca, the top Google hit for Canadian science. He has written four books, and has published in magazines and newspapers including the Globe and Mail and the New York Times. Originally from Winnipeg, Barry has a BSc in Organic Chemistry from Reed College in Portland, OR and an MSc in Resource Management Science from UBC. His book, “Sensational Scientists” profiling 24 of Canada’s greatest scientists and published by Raincoast Books, won a national book award in 2005. Barry also plays sax in a Vancouver pop trio.