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Back in the 1980s-90s, using a UNIX system required running expensive servers or paying for timesharing service, so they were beyond the reach of most individuals, and only available to members in institutions and corporations. Also, browsing the Internet or USENET was difficult if not impossible without access to UNIX.

At that time, some resourceful academic institutions and hobbyist groups offered Public Access UNIX Systems. Typically, a shell account of a UNIX machine would be available to group members, so members could dial-in at home, usually using a home computer as a terminal, log into a Unix server and use development utilities. Later, some systems also offered personal homepage hosting, access to USENET, etc.

The most influential system was the SDF Public Access UNIX, which is still active today. But there's little information online about the other Public Access UNIX Systems at that time. What were the major public access Unix systems in the 1980s-90s, in addition to SDF?

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    "Also, browsing the Internet or USENET was difficult if not impossible without access to UNIX." - not difficult at all, I started with both USENET and Internet (i.e. telnet, mail, ftp and gopher) on VMS :-) – Radovan Garabík May 22 at 8:24
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    I'm pretty sure getting on USENET was quite possible on the Macs of the time and possibly Amiga and ST. – Alan B May 22 at 10:46
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    Xenix (Unix for PC-type systems) was released in 1983. – another-dave May 22 at 12:15
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    Please clarify if you are specifically and ONLY asking about Unix terminal remote access systems, i.e. a pseudotty login? The comments above suggest your question is being lumped in with any sort of remote access that could connect to a traditional Unix host using any protocol. – Brian H May 22 at 13:36
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    The public access UNIX system that I recall hearing about was PANIX, still in business today as panix.com – Jeff Zeitlin May 22 at 18:30
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There's actually pretty good information on the state of public access Unix systems in 80's and 90's in the form the "nixpub" list that was distributed on Usenet and other places. The earliest version I could find is from November 1987 and listed 35 sites:

11/22     206-863-0453   *        Sumner      WA  12             24
  Tandy 6000 - XENIX  * Micro Magic BBS Fee $30/yr $5 setup shell access
  multiple lines 863-0454/5/6

11/22     618-277-6417  herky     ?           IL  3/12/24        24
  386 - SCO Xenix - no fee 60 min. XBBS

11/21     714-894-2246  stanton   Irvine      CA  12/24          24
  286 - SCO Xenix - donation requested, XBBS, limit 240 min, XBBS

11/04     314-947-0895  slacbbs   St. Louis   MO  3/12           24 
  286 - SCO XENIX - no fee 60 min. - XBBS - LOGIN: bbs, shell access to
  qualified REGULAR users

11/02     215-275-2429  prapc-1   Norristown  PA  12             24
  286 - Coherent sys7, no fee, 60 min, UNaXcess BBS, shell access, bbs
  login : fhbbs (Far Horizons BBS)

11/01     212-420-0527  magpie    NYC         NY  3/12/24        24
  ? - UNIX SYSV - 2, Magpie BBS, no fee, Authors: Magpie/UNIX,/MSDOS

10/09     812-334-8453  cguild    Bloomington IN  12             24
  286 - SCO-XENIX V2.2.1, xbbs, also 812-334-8465

10/09     713-334-1204  nuchat    Houston     TX  3/12/24        24
  286 - Mport USENET, mail, shell access available 120 meg 

10/06     714-662-7450  turnkey   Southern    CA  12/24          24
  286 - Xenix SYSV, XBBS

10/04     312-833-8126  vpnet     Villa Park  IL   3/12          24
  3B1 UNIX Sys ?, no fee, shell access, AKCS/ERACS BBS

10/30     212-675-7059  marob     NYC         NY   12/24         24
  286 SCO-XENIX 2.2, XBBS

10/31     814-333-6728  sir-alan  Meadville   PA   3/12/24       24
  Tandy XENIX/68000 03.01.02, Allegheny College, UNaXcess BBS, anon ftp

09/24     313-623-6309  nucleus   Clarkston   MI   12/24         24
  286 - UNIX SYS V, donation requested, AKCS/ERACS BBS

09/03     216-781-6201  ncoast    Cleveland   OH   3/12/24       24
  PLEXSUS, no fee, donation requested -> $2.00/hr prime, $1.00/hr non-prime

08/31     206-367-3837  eskimo    Seattle     WA   3/12          24 
  Tandy-6000 XENIX, 8 lines, fee $1/mo, 1st 2 weeks free

10/18     217-529-3223  pallas    Springfield IL   3/12/24       24
  Convrgnt Minifrme, multiple lines, 200 meg Minnie bbs $25 donation

08/30     312-283-0559  chinet    Chicago     IL   3/12/24       24
  3b2/300 - SYS V 3.1, multiple lines, Picospan BBS, fee $50/yr for usenet
  access and other than public lines

BBS DOWN  403-295-2541  xenlink   Calgary     AB   3/12/24       24
  286 - SCO -XENIX, no fee, Term BBS, shell access, login bbs

10/28     408-725-0561  portal    Cupertino   CA   3/12          24
  Networked Suns (SunOS), multiple lines (some at 2400 bps), Telenet access,
  fees: $10/month + Telenet charges (if used) @ various rates/times
  conferencing, multi user chats, usenet, no shell access 

08/29     415-332-6106  well      Sausalito   CA   3/12          24
  VAX 750 - BSD 4.2, multiple lines, Telenet access, Picospan bbs
  fees: $8/month, $3/hour direct, Telenet $20/$4 hour (peak/off peak)

08/28     214-824-7881  killer    Dallas      TX   3/12/24       24
  3b2/400 - UNIX, no fee, various time limits, 4 lines 860 meg online

08/28     312-566-8909  ddsw1     Mundelein   IL   3/12          24
  286 - Mport guest usr 1 hr daily, fee extends use, ERACS/UX bbs
    2400 bps for contributors($) on 312-566-8911/12 Authors of ERACS/UX bbs

10/23     312-272-5912  igloo     ??          IL   12         unknown
  PC7300 - UNIX limits unstated PicoSpan conference system

08/23    201-752-2820   unirot    ??          NJ    12        unknown
  Heurikon - Unisoft SYS V, fee status unknown AKA Soup Kitchen

08/23    714-635-2863   dhw68k    Anaheim     CA    3/12/24      24 
  Unistride 2.1, fee status unknown, avoid 0200-0700 hrs local time

08/23    212-879-9031   dasys1    NYC         NY    12        unknown
  Unistride - SYS V, multiple lines, fee $5/mo  AKA Big Electric Cat

08/22    714-842-5851   conexch   Santa Anna  CA  3/12/24        24
  XENIX  714-842-6348 (bbs) - 3/12 various limits fee $25/quarter XBBS

10/30    714-828-0288   alphacm   Southern    CA   12/24         24
  286 - SCO-XENIX no fee, 60 minute per login, 4 lines, XBBS

08/02    301-540-3656-9 netsys    Germantown  MD   12        unknown
  ALTOS 986(2) - Xenix, networked 240 meg, fee $5/mo  

10/06     619-444-7006  pnet01    El Cajon    CA   3/12/24       24
   BSD Unix, 3 lines, contributions requested, login: pnet id: new
   some USENET, net email, multi-thread conferencing.  Home of
   P-Net software, mail to crash!bblue or pnet01!bblue for info.

07/22     213-376-5714  pnet02    Redondo Bch CA   3/12/24       24
   XENIX (also 213-374-7404) no fee, 90 min limit, login: pnet id: new
   some USENET, net-work e-mail, multi-threaded conferencing

DOWN      213-459-7231  stb   Sta Monica  CA   3/12/24       24
   Tandy 16 no limits, no fee, Serial Tree bbs (home made), shell access

10/31     305-584-4440  pinn      Ft. Laud.   FL   3/12/24       24
  IBM AT - Microport  SYS V, multiple lines, fee $12/yr MAGIC BBS

07/12     303-632-4111  chariot   Colo Sprgs  CO   3/12          24
  Convrgnt Minifrme - SYS V, multiple lines, fee $12/mo Picospan

07/11     313-994-6333  m-net     Ann Arbor   MI   3/12          24
  Altos 68020 - SYS III, limits unstated, fee for extended service
  Picospan conference system, multiple lines, 160 meg

As you can see most of these sites ran some flavour of Xenix. Very few seem to have been using "expensive servers". Most are running on PCs, a few are running on workstations like the AT&T 3B2 that were obsolete at the time.

If you want to see more, a user by the name of "C.McCabe" has uploaded a number of old nixpub posts to Github.


Despite your claim that SDF Public Access UNIX was the most influential system, it was a late comer to the world of public access Unix. By the time SDF switched to Unix in 1990 the nixpub list had grown to over 100 entries. A much better candidate for most influential would be the Cleveland Free-Net which spawned a large number of other Free-nets in the 90's, some of which are still operating, like the National Capital Freenet. (Although I'm not sure if Cleveland Free-Net ever offered Unix shell access like the other Free-nets, it did however run on a AT&T 3B2/400 in it's early days.)

Other possible contenders for "big" early public Unix systems are Nyx and PANIX both predating SDF's switch to Unix.

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It wasn't all minicomputers and mainframes. I worked for a small consulting company in the late 1980s where, typically, four developers at any given time were logged on to the same desktop Unix box.

The CPU (Motorola 68020) and main memory were all on a single, full-length ISA card that was plugged in to an IBM PC-AT. The Unix system used the PC as an I/O processor and console, and the terminals on our desks all were connected to an 8-port UART card in another ISA slot.

Sorry, but I don't remember any other details (e.g., who made the thing.)

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Back in the 1980s-90s, using a UNIX system required running expensive servers.

I went to computing exhibitions from the mid 80s to early 90s. There were multiple vendors offering multiuser Unix systems with VDUs sharing a Motorola 680xx-based server, usually offered with some office automation package. These were cheaper than a DEC PDP-11 office automation system I was asked to cost up. (I established the cost, we all had a good laugh and I was tasked with buying my first two IBM PCs.)

Also in the 80s I set up an IBM PC-based Unix system. (An actual 8088 IBM PC, not an AT or later.) Unix was supplied on a large number of 360 KiB floppies for the base and optional packages. So cheapish, but not very convenient. Rather different from downloading a Linux ISO image today.

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