From Novice to Master, and Back Again

In 1985, I was a freshman at St. Olaf College in Minnesota. The college had a VAX 11/780 running 4.2BSD and a PDP-11/70 running v7 with some Berkeley and local code hacked in. It was my first experience with multi-user systems other than dialing into an MS-DOS BBS or two.

The college’s Academic Computing Center had printouts of the 4.2BSD manuals, plus some home-grown documentation, available for sale so students could learn how to use UNIX. One week I sat in the Science Center terminal room and started going through the alphabetical list of the commands available on the VAX, trying each one and reading its man page to learn what it did.

Eventually I got to “su”. “Become the super-user”? What’s that? Does it involve wearing a cape? Sounds interesting, so I tried it. To my disappointment, it just asked for a password, and wouldn’t do anything.

Shortly thereafter, someone came running into the room and asked, “Are you David MacKenzie? Did you just run ‘su’?” “Yeah… what does it do?” “Uh, don’t do that.” My failed “su” attempt had been logged on the system console and one of the sysadmins was worried about an attempted breakin.

Within a year, I did have root access on the VAX, as I learned enough to be hired as a student system programmer. I contributed to upgrading the machine to 4.3BSD when that was released.

Recently I was working on a CentOS Linux virtual machine and needed to look up the command-line options to “su”. I had worked for the past several years mostly on Macs where “sudo” is preferred, so my “su” skills were rusty. I ran “man su” and got the information I needed. Then at the bottom of the screen I sheepishly read “Written by David MacKenzie.”

In the 1990s, while filling in gaps in the GNU toolset, I wrote the GNU “su”, and I had forgotten about it. It’s still what Red Hat and other distributions are shipping.

At least I know what it does now.


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