DevOps for the Sinclair Spectrum - Part 4
This article is part of a series
- Table Of Contents - Full table of contents in Part 1
- Part 1 - Introduction, hardware, development environment, Windows/Linux buildchain and tools
- Part 2 - The server environment and building the first prototype
- Part 3 - The backend server daemon, pipelines and unit tests
- Part 4 - Wrap-up, other sites and final thoughts
In Part 3 I covered the backend server processes and protocols, CI/CD pipelines and unit tests I used to build the TNFS site. In this (much shorter) part, I’d like to take a step back from the hardcore geekery, and wrap up with my thoughts on the whole thing.
But before that, I’m going to explore a little part of the rest of the TNFS universe. After all, this project is intended to build a community site, and the Speccy has one of the friendliest retro computing communities out there. My site isn’t the only one out there - there’s a whole network of TNFS servers on the public internet, and the protocol has also been adopted for 8-bit Atari systems. There’s currently no central directory as such (although work is underway to create an index system using DNS TXT records) but there’s a forum thread that gets regular updates, and I have a links section on my site’s main menu.
To give you an idea of some of the great content others have built, here’s a quick overview and screenshots of some of my favourite Speccy TNFS sites…
A very useful site to have bookmarked in one of the Spectranet’s slots. Hosted by the developer of the Spectranet’s firmware, It has some nice lists of classic and modern (2000s-era) games, demos and also some internet utilities including IRC and Twitter gateways. The first option in the menu is an online firmware update utility for Spectranet cards. The updater doesn’t work on an emulated Spectranet but works great on the real hardware - this is one of the first sites you should visit!
The weird and wonderful
This site takes up the default slot in Spectranet cards purchased from ByteDelight.com and serves as a demonstration. When you first configure your card, it’ll boot straight into this site which displays a snazzy “SkyNet” intro sequence informing you that you Speccy has been taken over, and all your base are belong to them.
This wonderful fever-dream of a site was produced by a “p13z”, a regular on the Spectrum Computing Forums. It’s an impressive demonstration of what can be achieved using plain Sinclair BASIC - It’s sort of an interactive adventure where you start off by driving away from a police car against a neat parallax-scrolling background. You then end up wandering around various locations including a car-park frequented by “doggers” (and a telephone box which lets you connect to other TNFS sites), some standing stones where you can sample some “banging mushrooms” and other weird delights. Utterly bonkers in a classic Speccy kinda way…
Home of the Channels project, which provides a ZX Spectrum browser for forums and imageboards. If you boot into this site, set
zx.desertkun.in as your proxy in the opening screen, and you can connect to internet forums and message boards including the Spectrum Computing Forums! There’s a Docker Image and source code available so you can run and customise things on your own systems. This uses a similar approach to my site where the heavy-lifting (in this case, TLS processing and connecting to/parsing the data from websites) is shifted to a more-capable modern environment. Awesome work!
Now this one is a proper rabbit hole you could spend days exploring. It’s a fascinating part of computer history I had never encountered before: A visionary system that hosted some of the earliest ever online message boards, as well as apparently inspired the creation of Castle Wolfenstein and Lotus Notes! Their website explains it: “IRATA.ONLINE is provided for the benefit of retro-computing users to have a place to socialize, and develop interesting multi-user, interactive, and graphical games and social applications. It descends from the historical PLATO system, a massive time-sharing system that lasted from 1962 until NovaNET was closed in 2015.” The TNFS site hosts a terminal application that connects to the PLATO system (other retro systems are also supported) and you can even browse it through the web at https://js.irata.online/. Amazing stuff, and well worth some time checking out.
This TNFS site hosts the uGophy Gopher client for the Spectrum. This lets you browse “gopherspace” from your speccy - try out
gopher.floodgap.com as a starting point. You can use a web browser to access the HTTP proxy at https://gopher.floodgap.com/gopher/ to get a useful list of links to other Gopher sites still in operation, including the Veronica-2 search engine.
As well as a couple of “experiments” (a multi-player Tank game and music Jukebox), the
zxnet.co.uk TNFS site hosts a copy of snapCterm (see below) and an IRC gateway. The IRC gateway allows you to connect to any public IRC server network and chat with other users - try libera.chat to get started, and use their excellent online help guides to find some interesting channels to join.
SnapCTerm is a terminal emulator that provides the basics of an ANSI 80 column terminal for the plus machines. It supports ASCII characters as well as ANSI escape and colour codes. This means you can use it to connect to Telnet servers e.g. a Linux system running
telnetd which makes it possible to access the many old-school BBS systems still running. This is how we used to “social network”, kids, before this new fangled web thing took over… There’s a great curated list of systems to connect to at https://www.telnetbbsguide.com/ including all those “elite” sites that used to be advertised all over Amiga demo/warez scene productions. You can see in the screenshot a connection starting to The Sanctuary BBS, running on AmiExpress (still being updated!) and which used to be Fairlight’s World Headquarters back in the day. SnapCTerm is available on my TNFS site (2nd menu page, option 3) as well as on sites like zxnet.co.uk.
This is an archive of the zx.kupo.be TNFS site, which at one point hosted one of the largest collections of games and files for the Speccy. Sadly, Adam Colley who ran the site passed away in 2020. Kupo was one of the first sites I connected to when I first got my Spectranet card and looking through the code gave me the inspiration to start my own site. His work is archived here by someone who was in close contact with him before he passed, and it’s fitting that his site lives on and will be remembered by the community.
As well as a nice little “blizzard” intro, retrojen.org hosts around 500 classic Spectrum scene demo tapes. Use the
QAOP keys to move around the menu system,
ENTER to select a title,
1 to jump to the first page and
F to find a production by the release date. A great little archive of some old gems! Thanks for the recent post on my message wall, too :)
This site hosts a curated collection of modern (mid-2000s onwards) games and titles released for the Speccy. There’s some great games that showcase the best of the current Speccy scene. Many of these titles are also available on my site, but it’s great to have them all arranged in a curated date order like this. I highly recommend trying out 2019’s “Yazzie”, a fantastic platformer/puzzle game that is ridiculously addictive.
Since the site went online in January 2021 it’s grown to nearly 10k lines of code, handled over 11,500 connections and has gathered a small community of users chatting, playing games and leaving messages. It’s connected me to a wonderful (if slightly crazy) network of people who care about this little squidgey-keyed black box from the 80s as much as I do. It’s been a real pleasure seeing first users come to the site and I have lots of plans still for the future! Just a few of the bits and pieces in various Git branches right now:
- Proper pagination indication on all menus (page x of y type stuff)
- Message Board improvements (big speed boost and longer retention)
- Reply to comments - this opens up the possibility of a proper message board system!
- More files to upload and more curated lists
- I’m open to suggestions! If you have any ideas or fancy writing a text article for the site, let me know…
In the words of one of the messages from a user: “It’s mad being online with a 40yr old computer designed around a tape recorder.” Perhaps it’s even crazier to drag the whole shebang into the modern age and cobble together infra-as-code pipelines, unit testing and gratuitous amounts of Kubernetes around it all. I did use a lot of my current-day practical knowledge during this project, but the most enjoyable parts where when I was doing stuff like studying the decades-old intricies of the
Sometimes, introducing constraints like an ancient 8-bit processor with only 48Kb of usable RAM can really force you to think “outside the box” and produce the most creative hacks. Plus, in this day and age it’s a lot of fun to do something just for the sheer hell of it! I’m also definitely going to add Sinclair BASIC to my “skills” in LinkedIn now ;)
Before I close, I’d just like to add a note of thanks to everyone who’s used my site, suggested features, left messages or helped me out with my many technical queries on forums. It’s been an absolute blast and I look forward to the next 40 years of Spectrum hacking!
-Mark, February 2022.