Zuh: The Best Kept Secret on the Net

What is the best kept secret on the internet? A small, intimate IRC network called Zuh! Since it was founded in April of '98, Zuh.net has been growing steadily. With its focus on fun, and its adherence to a policy of safe, comfortable chatting this little IRC network has what it takes to compete with the big boys.

Internet Relay Chat (IRC) has been around for a long time, but in the last few years, its popularity has skyrocketed. Conceived in August of 1988 as a communications program to aid a Public Access BBS, the programmer (Jarkko Oikarinen, University of Oulu, Finland) wanted to provide the members of that group with real time discussion capability. The bulletin board already had one program they were using, MultiUser Talk (MUT), but it was more like a one channel IRC and it had problems with reliability. Oikarinen's relay expanded this concept into a multi-channel network which gave users the freedom to specify a channel.

In January of '91, the IRC network tripled in size from one hundred to over three hundred users. The reason? The Gulf War. Trapped within the confines of their war-torn country, many PC owners in Kuwait started reporting on the horror and inhumanity of the Iraqi occupation using this real time chat capability. From that point on, the growth of the Internet Relay Chat began to accelerate and expand until it reached the size it is today.

Currently, there are over one hundred different networks with the "big four" (DALnet, Undernet, EFnet and IRCnet) having well over 20,000 users each day. Considered one of the smaller networks, Zuh averages approximately three hundred users during its daily prime time (8pm to 1am EST), but has been known to have as many as five hundred users on at once.

Zuh has over two hundred-fifty registered channels, eight servers¹ and five server administrators. When compared to one of the largest networks, EFnet, which runs on approximately forty servers with almost 25,000 channels formed, you can see there's quite a disparity in size. But size, and a staff committed to excellence, are what sets this little network apart from the others.

From its birth, Zuh's administrators have recognized the need to better serve their users. Born out of discontent with the way XWorld was being run, one of the main principles that Zuh is based on is "...fun. Zuh pretty much stands for FUN. If you don't want to have fun, you shouldn't IRC on Zuh!"

But it's not just about fun, it's also about responsibility, professionalism and attention to detail. The server administrators set an example of excellence that is followed by the IRC Operators (opers) and the users who are in training to become opers. Zuh has stringent requirements for those who want to join their organization. The individuals who are fortunate enough to be asked to become a part of the staff are taught how to handle the many levels of problems that arise - from helping out the confused and clueless newbie to tracking trouble makers trying to hide out by changing connections or usernames. Their position, however, covers much more than that, indeed their knowledge and ability borders on the "realm of hideously technical." The most important aspect of an oper's job is to remain behind the scenes, keeping the network running smoothly, and this the staff of Zuh does with precision and alacrity.

A chat network without controls opens itself up to confusion, instability and server disruptions caused by "irc wars" and other outside sources. To prevent this, some networks set up a series of regulations which must be adhered to by the users and channel owners. The policies and registration process Zuh has in place guarantees the owner of a channel that it will still be there when they return...and with the use of Z, the channel service bot², they give the room owners a way to police and regulate things themselves.

Each "room" on Zuh must be registered before Z will enter and recognize commands. Definitely one of the pluses of Zuh, this little bot helps keep things under control and just makes chatting more fun. Z allows the room owner to keep out disruptive chatters, set the topic on the subject header and identify the mask of every user.

Comprised of three different components (nickname, username, and hostname or IP address), the mask identifies each chatter as a unique entity. The mask is then, in turn, used to register each room. Z will respond to the owner (plus anyone that the owner has assigned "op duties" to) of the channel by comparing the mask with the one that has been registered. This provides each channel with a level of security and stability not found on most other IRC networks.

EFnet (a network of multiple servers, each with its own policies), has some servers that allow bots, some that don't. More limiting than the lack of a channel bot is the inability to register rooms. This eliminates any possibility of permanence or regularity for chatters. They also have problems with server splits that occur several times each day, usually as a result of irc-wars.

Undernet, probably the most similar to Zuh in its make-up and use of channel bots, is so large it loses the intimacy that the smaller networks still enjoy. Dalnet, the default servers for mIRC, has to contend with a large amount of users new to chatting. Though the ease of registering a room is a plus, still the size and overall traffic on this network makes the chatting experience often a confusing and dissatisfying one.

With Zuh, you get the security of a large network, like Undernet, but the down-home feeling that makes chatting so much fun...and remember, fun is what Zuh is about.

If you like to play games, check out #trivia. It's an online game channel devoted to trivia questions and answers. Looking for something a little more rowdy, and maybe just a bit racy? Try #firehouse. Want to just hang around and chat in a friendly atmosphere, there's #decafe - only thing it's missing is the scent of Espresso wafting through the air. Think you'd like to register a channel, or talk to some of the IRC opers personally, head for #zuh.

Whether you're an IRC pro or about to embark on your first chat experience, this little network should definitely be on your list to check out. One of the best kept secrets on the net has been exposed!

¹Online Chat Servers, an Introduction by J. Henry Priebe Jr

There is no nail-head process for getting a chat server online. There are literally hundreds of ways, but to have one on a network which is worth using is something else entirely.

It is possible to go to one of those "free" webchat places and get a "webchat room" setup, but that's not a server and that doesn't give you any real kind of administrative control over the network it is on.

Making the decision is easy, but doing it all properly and effectively isn't.

Anyone can decide to do it - buy a shell account and set up a server - if they can find someone to help them compile the source code, but "having a working server does not a chat network make."

Zuh has strict guidelines for new server links to their network. Applicants must meet certain criteria for reliability, responsibility and speed of access. You can check out the server requirements at http://www.zuh.net/servers/servapp.html.

Internet machines, like WebTV, are not a suitable medium of access to the internet for a prospective IRC server administrator (SA), it is just far too restrictive to allow effective management of a command line driven secure unix shell account

Having access to a fast unix shell account where you have permission from the network administrator to run an IRC server daemon is only one small step in the process. A SA needs a competent, responsible staff of opers to keep an eye on their server. They all need to know what to do when a problem arises and how to handle it without upsetting the other users online. You have to know how to make your actual unix shell account space secure from potential intrusions or exploits.

What if you can't find a network who wants to link your server? You can go it alone and start your own network, right? Sure, but now you have an even bigger problem than before. You now have to provide all the core services for your new network in addition to managing your IRC server. You need to register a domain name for your IRC network and someone has to provide nameservice (DNS) for it, otherwise when someone tries to get to your irc.xyz.net chat network their computer will just rudely tell them that network is nowhere to be found.

You need to provide some type of channel services so users can register channels and feel secure that their channel will still be theirs when they return for their next IRC session. That channel robot needs to be easy to use, and even the easiest to use channel bot will need to have humans readily available to explain how to use it for those who just don't have any idea how to manage a channel.

There's a lot more that goes into it; there are hundreds of subtleties involved in keeping an IRC network running smoothly and 99% of it is behind the scenes. IRC is supposed to be fun and games for everyone, but for the people who make it happen there has to be a lot of dedication and competence involved. The best networks are the ones where the users never see the problems.

² Beginner's Guide to Bots by Richard Dron

One of the topics I get asked most frequently about is 'bots. People who use IRC have heard of them, and many find them useful for keeping channels under control or just to make chatting more enjoyable. To understand what 'bots are and how they work, we need to start with the basics.

A 'bot is simply an IRC chatting client (such as mIRC on the PC or BitchX for Linux, or even a WebTV IRC) with some special scripts installed. These scripts look out for certain words in the channel such as swear words or commands, as well as large amounts of text from one person (a flood). More advanced 'bots can automatically set modes for the channel, ban people, or even play games with the users.

The differences between most bots and normal chat clients are simple really. One is that to be effective, a 'bot must be connected permanently to the internet. Another is that to be reliable, most bots don't actually run on users' chatting programs, but rather on a program written specifically for use as a bot. One of the most popular bot programs is called Eggdrop, and is most commonly run on Linux or Unix.

'Bots come in handy for normal users, and especially for WebTV users, for making IRC much friendlier. For instance, ZUH's channel service, Z, accepts commands such as op #channel nickname and mask nickname. This is great for users not too familiar with their chatting program, or simply for those on WebTV or any other system which doesn't normally allow you to use the special features available with IRC. Z, along with many other networks' channel services, is used to register channels to give users complete control over their own channels, along with lots of other handy features which you can find at http://www.zuh.net/faq

Of course, this is only a very basic guide to satisfy any curiosities you may have had about these strange creatures. If you'd like to learn more, however, below are some resources which will allow you to learn more about bots and perhaps even set up your own.