UGCS is Caltech’s student-run enthusiast computer cluster dedicated to learning and experimenting with computer hardware and software and is one of approximately six such student-run facilities in the United States. UGCS charges no dues and is open to all members of the Caltech community, including undergraduates, graduate students, staff, faculty, and alumni. Undergraduate alumni who use the cluster regularly are allowed to keep their accounts following graduation to foster communication between current and past students. UGCS has approximately 1,500 active accounts. Undergraduates, graduate students, alumni, faculty, and on-campus organizations use UGCS as an experimentation ground, a base of contact, and a permanent home on the Internet.
UGCS originated as part of the Caltech CS department in the mid 1980s when the CS department turned over control of its official cluster of UNIX computers located in Jorgensen to student sysadmins. The cluster has significantly evolved over the past 30 years as hardware architectures and operating systems changed and sysadmins joined and graduated. In 2004, we were cut loose from Caltech CS and became an independent student organization with separate funding. At this time, UGCS stopped being used officially for CS classes and we moved into a new location in the basement of Winnett.
Our goal is to provide computing services to all students, staff, faculty, and alumni of Caltech, with a special emphasis on undergraduates. We have a secondary goal of promoting Unix and computing literacy among undergraduates by providing a live, working cluster that undergraduates can gain experience from managing, as well as a shared work space for the community and undergraduates to work on computing projects outside the house system.
UGCS is the only generally available computer resource on the Caltech campus that caters to computer enthusiasts: the cluster provides a ﬂexible, low-key environment where any member may experiment with a wide range of hardware and software in ways that would be otherwise impractical with private equipment or on an official computing cluster. UGCS allows students to have fun and learn new technologies without interfering with official campus resources. Additionally, UGCS serves as an anchoring point for alumni in the undergraduate and graduate communities. Because UGCS allows members to continue to use accounts after graduation and provides a wide range of communication channels, it is in a unique position to allow past students to stay in touch with fellow classmates, UGCS members currently enrolled at Caltech, and staff and faculty who use the cluster.
Unlike the official IMSS systems, UGCS allows students who graduate and leave Caltech to keep their accounts for as long as they actively use them. Many users of UGCS joined the cluster over ten years ago, and still use UGCS as their primary email and web addresses. The only other computer system that provides a similar resource is the Alumni server, which allows only email and web access. In contrast, alumni users of UGCS still have access to the full range of services the cluster offers, including shell and graphical access to all installed software and tools.
We offer significantly more services to either IMSS or the Alumni Association servers. Although IMSS provides all Caltech members with a place to publish web pages on, these web pages are static; there is no way to dynamically update or modify web pages based on visitor or author input. UGCS encourages these sort of dynamic pages with full CGI scripting access and a number of tools installed to facilitate web page creation. In particular, UGCS offers SQL database use to every member. SQL databases are essential to almost every sort of complex web page scripting system, from weblog software and on-line photo galleries to extensively customized sites similar to the Caltech student government web page, donut.caltech.edu. Both individual members and other groups who need advanced web publishing options use these services. Since UGCS members may keep their accounts indefinitely, these web-based services allow our users to create an extensive and full-featured website without having to worry that their presence on the web will disappear immediately after graduation.
UGCS is uniquely suited to allow members to experiment with software and hardware in a way that other official clusters can not support. Because we do not provide services that are critical to the Institute, we can afford to separate a significant portion of our hardware and dedicate it to experimentation with projects and emerging technologies that are potentially unsuitable for mission-critical tasks. Because the administrators of UGCS are prepared to maintain this environment, and since members are aware that experimental computers are not reliable, we allow tinkering and experimentation that individuals and other labs cannot afford in time, equipment, and reliability.
We have over 1,500 active users and have had at least 4,000 unique users since 1989. We generated a significant amount of new interest at the beginning of this year, with more than 90 accounts being created since the beginning of the school year (representing approximately 10% of the total undergraduate population). There are currently three sysadmins responsible for maintenance of the cluster, and we have created a junior sysadmin program to recruit new sysadmins and ensure that we continue to have sufficient staff to run the cluster.