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November 25, 2015

3000 community keystone Jeff Kell dies

Jeff Kell Dec. 2014Jeff Kell, the man who founded the keystone of 3000 help, advice and support that is the 3000-L mailing list, died on Nov. 25 of liver cancer and complications from damage induced by a diabetic coma. He'd battled that illness in hospitals and hospice since 2014. Kell was 57.

"It is a very sad day when a good wizard passes on," said coworker and colleague Richard Gambrell at the University of Tennesee at Chattanoona. "Jeff had a gentle soul and brilliant mind."

Kell was the rare IT professional who could count upon 40 years of experience running HP 3000s, developing for MPE, and especially contributing to the state of the art of networking for the server. He created the ultimate network for the 3000's community by establishing HP3000-L, a LISTSERV mailing list now populated with several hundred thousand messages that trace the business computer's rise, decline, and then revival, rife with enduring high tech value and a thread of humor and humanity.

Kell's obituary notes that he came by his passion for scuba early, having worked for a short time at the Chattanooga Aquarium where he fed the sharks. A key contributor to the development of LISTSERV, Kell was instrumental in UTC’s earning the LISTSERV 25th Anniversary plaque, which lists UTC as the 10th University to deploy LISTSERV.

Jeff at ReunionKell also served as a volunteer to chair SIG-MPE, SIG-SYSMAN, as well as a 3000 networking SIG, but it's nearly impossible to sum up the range of experience he shared. In the photo at the top of this post, he's switching off the last N-Class system at the university where he worked. Almost 40 years of MPE service flowed off those university 3000s. In the photo above, from the HP3000 Reunion, he's updating attendees on how networking protocols have changed.

In the mid-1980s he was a pioneer in developing Internet Relay Chat, creating a language that made BITNET Relay possible. Relay was the predecessor to IRC. "Jeff was the main force behind RELAY, the Bitnet message and file transfer program," Gambrell said. "It inspired the creation of IRC."

My partner Abby and I are personally indebted to Kell's work, even though we've never owned or managed a 3000. The 3000-L and its rich chest of information was my assurance, as well as insurance, that the fledgling 3000 NewsWire could grow into the world of the 3000. In the postings from that list, I saw a written, living thread of wisdom and advice from experts on "the L," as its readers came to call the mailing list and newsgroup Kell started. Countless stories of ours began as tips from the L, or connections to people posting there who knew mission-critical techniques. At one point we hired columnists to summarize the best of each month's L discussions in net.digest. In the era where the Internet and the Web rose up, Kell was a beacon for people who needed help at digital speed.

JeffKellHe was a humble and soft-spoken man, with a wry sense of humor, but showed passion while defending the value of technical knowledge -- especially details on a product better-loved by its users than the management at its vendor. Kell would say that all he did was set up another Listserver on a university computer, one devoted to becoming crucial to UTC's success. Chattanooga is one of the best-networked towns of its size in the world. Kell did much more than that for his community, tending to the work that helped the L blossom in the 3000's renaissance.

Kell looked forward to an HP which would value the 3000 as much as the HP 9000. In 1997 he kicked off a meeting with HP to promote a campaign called Proposition 3000: Common hardware across both HP 3000s and HP 9000s, sold from an Open Systems Division, with MPE/iX or HP-UX as an option, both with robust APIs to make ISV porting of applications to MPE/iX "as trivial as any other Unix platform." 

HP should be stressing the strengths of MPE/iX, "and not its weaknesses," he said. "We don't have to be told anymore what the 3000 can't do, because a lot of the things we were told it can't do, it now can. If we take the limitations of the Posix shell and remove them, we have Proposition 3000," Kell said to HP managers. "I would encourage you to vote yes for this investment in the future."

More than 16 years later, when MPE's fate had been left to experts outside of HP's labs, Kell offered one solution on how to keep the server running beyond MPE's Jan 1, 2028 rollover dating gateway.

"Well, by 2027, we may be used to employing mm/dd/yy with a 27 on the end, and you could always go back to 1927. And the programs that only did two-digit years would be all set. Did you convert all of 'em for Y2K? Did you keep the old source?" Kell's listserver is the keeper of all 3000 lore, history, and wisdom, a database that can be searched from a Web interface -- even though he started the resource before commonplace use of what we were calling the World Wide Web.

Some might dismiss that resource as a museum of old tech. Others were using it this week, to connect newer-age tape devices to old-school 3000s. He retired the last of UTC's 3000 at the end of 2013 (in the photo above). His own help to the community members on tech specifics and the state of this year's networking will outlive him, thanks to his work setting this keystone for the community's exchange.

He had a passion for scuba, and could also dive deep into the latest of networking's crises. At the 2011 HP3000 Reunion, he held forth at a luncheon about the nuances that make up a secure network in our era of hack such as 2013's Heartbleed.

About 10 days after the Heartbleed news rocked the Web, Kell posted a summary on its challenges and which ports to watch.

Unless you've had your head in the sand, you've heard about Heartbleed. Every freaking security vendor is milking it for all it's worth. It is pretty nasty, but it's essentially "read-only" without some careful follow-up. 

Most have focused on SSL/HTTPS over 443, but other services are exposed (SMTP services on 25, 465, 867; LDAP on 636; others). You can scan and it might show up the obvious ones, but local services may have been compiled against "static" SSL libraries, and be vulnerable as well.

We've cleaned up most of ours (we think, still scanning); but that just covers the server side. There are also client-side compromises possible.

And this stuff isn't theoretical, it's been proven third-party.

Lots of folks say replace your certificates, change your passwords, etc.  I'd wait until the services you're changing are verified secure.

Most of the IDS/IPS/detections of the exploits are broken in various ways.  STARTTLS works by negotiating a connection, establishing keys, and bouncing to an encrypted transport. IDS/IPS can't pick up heartbleed encrypted. They're after the easy pre-authenticated handshake.

It's a mess for sure. But it’s not yet safe to necessarily declare anything safe just yet.

Even on a day when most people in the US are off work, the tributes to his help and spirit have poured in. "He was smart, soft spoken, and likable," said Gilles Schipper from his support company GSA. "He will be deeply missed. My condolences to his wife Kitty and the entire family."

Ed King, whose 3000 time began in the 1990s, said "Jeff was a great guy, full of wisdom and great stories, and he gave me a chance to flex my wings with some very interesting programming assignments, which kickstarted my career. He will be missed."

Developer Rick Gilligan called him "hard working, brilliant and a great communicator." Alfredo Rego said in a salute that "The members of Jeff’s family, and all of Jeff’s friends and colleagues, know that he made a tremendous difference during his life on this Earth."

Rich Corn, creator of the ESPUL printer software for MPE, said "Jeff was always a joy to talk to. So sharp, but at the same time so humble. Jeff made you feel like friend. A true leader in our profession."

The family's obituary for Kell includes a Tribute Wall on his page on the website of the Wilson Funeral Home in Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia. 

Personally, I'll miss his questing spirit and marvel in his legacy. What a Master he was.

Here on this evening of Thanksgiving, we're giving thanks for the richness of a world with humble wizards like Jeff. We're taking a few days off to revere our time together. We'll see you with a fresh report on Monday, including analysis of the final fiscal results from Hewlett-Packard as a full entity, unsplit.

07:32 PM in History, Homesteading, Migration, Newsmakers | Permalink

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