Using a Raspberry Pi as a BBS Client

In a digital world before the Internet was a common household name, there existed a connected community of surfers. These individuals didn’t surf the WWW, instead they dialled up Bulletin Board Systems (BBS), and opened a whole new world of content.

Wargames

If you’re old enough to recall, or have watched since, the excellent movie Wargames, then you’ll be roughly familiar with the way in which a Bulletin Board System works; and if you haven’t watched Wargames, then we recommend you get hold of it.

In the movie, the young protagonist spends his days at the keyboard of his early 80s computer, using his modem to dial into remote systems. Once inside these remote systems, he then goes about traversing the remote host’s file system looking for anything interesting.

The movie plot aside, this is essentially how a BBS works. It’s a remote computer that runs a specialist BBS server software with a mix of content either pre-installed, or added by the system admin (sysadmin or sysop). A user of the BBS can then dial, in the old modem sense, the BBS server’s phone number, and gain access to the system with a valid username and password; or if they’re new, they have the option to create a new user.

These days, of course, the dial-up aspect has pretty much gone the way of the Dodo (although there are still some retro stalwarts who relish in the chronic noise of a dial-up connection), however, we can still enjoy the retro feeling of a traditional BBS using the legacy protocol, Telnet.

Why?

In a world of Internet snooping, a BBS is probably one of the last bastions of digital privacy; to some degree. A private BBS is somewhere where you can connect to likeminded individuals, to chat, swap code, reminisce, play a text-based adventure, or simply just hang out. True, you can get hold of copyrighted or explicit content, but that’s only if you connect to those BBSes that serve such content, just as with the darker areas of the internet.

Most BBSes follow a theme, whether that’s old DOS-based adventures, ZX Spectrum fans, Commodore 64 gamers, or even something non-techie related, such as a Ford Cortina owners club; no doubt swapping owner manuals, old photos of the Cortina E and such.

In truth, a modern BBS is a bit of fun. Connecting to a system someone has installed and built, set around a particular theme, and designed with fantastic looking ANSI graphics, is a great pastime. It’s a form of respect, in some ways, to acknowledge the work that’s gone into creating the BBS by connecting to it. And you also get to learn a little more about how protocols work, and how everything is connected.

Surfing the Boards

Connecting to a BBS via the Raspberry Pi is quite easy, but to get the most from it you will need to get your hands dirty in the Terminal.

As mentioned, we’re going to be using a form of the protocol Telnet, in this instance using the program SyncTERM to emulate the old-style Terminals that support ANSI art and IBM fonts while connecting to the remote BBS with the Telnet protocol. You can simply use telnet under the Terminal (once you’ve installed it), but you’ll miss some of the glorious artwork displayed within the majority of the BBSes.

To begin with, drop into a Terminal session on your Pi. When the Terminal is fired up, enter sudo apt-get update && sudo apt-get upgrade to ensure your system is up to date. If everything is okay, enter: sudo apt-get install telnet. While this stage isn’t strictly necessary, it’s always a good idea to have the base protocol client installed.

When telnet is installed, you can then start the procedure of installing SyncTERM. In order to get SyncTERM working, you’ll need to build it from source. By now, you should be a dab-hand at this, but here’s the process in case you’ve forgotten (along with some added elements to help everything go to plan).

Begin by changing directory to the Downloads folder, and downloading the source code:

cd Downloads\
wget http://syncterm.bbsdev.net/syncterm-src.tgz
ls

With ls entered, you should see the newly downloaded tgz file. To unpack the downloaded file, enter:

tar -xf syncterm-src.tgz

This will create a new syncterm-(DATE) folder, where DATE is the current date when you’ve unpacked the contents of the tgz file.

You will now need to change directories to:

cd syncterm-(DATE)
cd src
cd syncterm

You can mesh these directories together, but for the sake of keeping things simple, we’ll stick to one folder at a time. Also, remember you can hit the Tab key to auto-complete a directory name.

Once in the syncterm directory, you can begin to build from source. However, before you do that, it’s worth installing a couple of extras to ensure the BBS session works to perfection. Start by installing the following:

sudo apt-get install libncurses5-dev
sudo apt-get install libsdl1.2-dev

Once these two are installed, start the build process by entering:

sudo make

Followed by:

sudo make install

The process may take a few minutes, so be patient. When everything is installed you can enter the command: syncterm, to start the program and change the screen settings, if you wish. However, to get straight into connecting to a BBS, try one of these commands:

syncterm dura-bbs.net: 6359
syncterm bbs.kernelerror.com: 10023
syncterm particlebbs.dyndns.org: 6400
syncterm heatwave.ddns.net: 9640
syncterm sysgod.org:23000

Naturally, some or even all of these BBSes may be offline when you come to test them. They are, after all, being operated by individuals like you and I. If they are offline, you can always get hold of a comprehensive list of active servers by visiting https://www.telnetbbsguide.com/bbs/list/brief/.

Get Connected

It’s worth spending some time finding the sort of BBS that suits your tastes. As you’ll see by visiting the aforementioned website, there’s over 500 BBSes currently listed, so somewhere in there a BBS could be your new online haunt.

David Hayward

David has spent most of his life tinkering with technology, from the ZX Spectrum, getting his hands on a Fujitsu VPP5000/100 supercomputer, and coding on an overheating Raspberry Pi. He's written for the likes of Micro Mart, Den of Geek, and countless retro sites and publications, covering reviews, creating code and bench testing the latest tech. He also has a huge collection of cables.

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