Taming the Wild Kitty Running a Wildcat! 4 BBS Review by Jacci Howard Bear
It's a jungle out there in the world of BBS software. Wildcat! 4.0
is the newest breed of cat from Mustang Software, Inc. (MSI). Wildcat has fanatic fans and faultfinders. Because you choose your BBS software based on your own needs and the demands of your new or existing BBS, you should listen to both sides–what they say and what they don't say–then make the best choice for your own situation.
Wildcat 4 easily molds itself to a variety of BBS configurations. It
is simple enough for the beginning Sysop to setup and run in short order, yet powerful and flexible enough to meet the needs of the experienced BBS operator. It's not without a few oddities that might not suit everyone–we'll discuss some of those later. But mostly, I find it to be a great program.
Explore the Jungle
Before looking at specific BBS software choices, including Wildcat
4, consider why you want a BBS. Software varies greatly in the way it handles files, messages, subscriptions, access, and multiple lines. Also consider how well it integrates with other programs you'll need such as games, databases, and faxes. What you want out of your BBS helps determine what software you need to put into it.
There are two general types of bulletin board systems--hobby and
professional. Within each type are many varieties.
Amateur or Hobbyist. Many amateur boards have true "professional"
Sysops. However, you will find that these boards are generally free or run on donations from callers. The BBS may be public–accepting any and all callers or a private board that you may never even know exists until the Sysop tells you about it and grants you access. These hobby boards may be "generalist" or cater to special interests.
A common misconception is that all BBSs carry hundreds of files,
games, and X-rated material. Nothing could be further from the truth. My own BBS is a free public board with only a handful of files (all rated G), no games, and a slant toward home business and desktop publishing. A local networking group also uses my board as an "on-line home." Other hobby boards may specialize in Genealogy or Country Music or live chat. Big or small, making money is not the purpose of a hobby BBS. It's pure pleasure or a "labor of love." On being a Sysop, Cathy Keller, of Austin, says, "I love it! It's nice giving something back to the community, and it's fun facing the vast assortment of challenges one finds as a Sysop."
Professional or Business. Boards that charge fees, customer or
technical support, and product information boards make up the other major classification of bulletin board systems. These are usually run by companies, and private networks for company employees or organization members. Some of the professional boards may operate exactly like the Hobby boards described above but charge a subscription or use a 900 number for access. Companies and organizations run a BBS network for employees or members or, as a way to disseminate company or product news. They may even take orders on-line.
Panther, Lion, or Household Tabby
Wildcat 4 comes in four versions--Single Line, MultiLine 10,
MultiLine 250, and MultiLine Platinum. The version you need depends on the size and scope of your BBS as well as your equipment. The Wildcat 4 manual describes a number of typical BBS setups. Described here are three real BBSs using three different versions of Wildcat.
My BBS, The Bear Necessities, running on a "homemade" 286 with 1 MB
of RAM, uses the Single Line version. MSI recommends this version for the "entry level BBS for the small business person, hobbyist or special interest group." That fits my BBS perfectly. Cathy Keller runs two Wildcat 4 BBSs. Dingle Delaware uses the MultiLine 10 version, which can handle up to 4 dial-in lines. An "all-purpose" BBS that covers a wide range of topics, multiple lines allow the BBS to accept more callers and callers get through to the BBS more easily (fewer busy signals). E-source, operated by the Texas General Land Office is "part of our efforts to make information easily available to the general public on such issues as recycling, alternative fuels, sustainable energy, etc." says Ms. Keller. This BBS runs on the MultiLine 250 version of Wildcat 4. It also can handle up to 4 dial-in lines and MSI recommends it for the "medium to large sized LAN E-mail or corporate communications system requiring b al network access … and only a small number of dial-up lines." The MultiLine Platinum version is recommended for medium to large LAN E-mail or corporate communications. Or, for large multi-user public or private BBSs with up to 8 incoming telephone lines per workstation. The MultiLine Platinum works with a wider range of serial devices than the others and supports multiport serial boards.
Ms. Keller believes that "there's a real misconception about Wildcat
being only a package for hobbyists. It's very powerful for use within a business setting as well. Because of the ease of use, the callers to the business BBS perceive that you've gone the extra mile to accommodate them. … it's smart business using something that is easy, makes your customers feel comfortable, and that hasn't bankrupted you in the process."
Let the Cat out of the Bag (or Box)
With some software, installation and initial setup is the hardest
part. With others, it's the only easy part of the process. Setting up a BBS requires careful use of resources and hardware. Do you have enough hard drive space? Memory? Will it work with your modem? Do you prefer a different directory structure? Are you running Windows or DESQview or OS/2 or on a network? Will it work with your other existing software such as that required for some mail gateways like Fido Net or Internet?
Wildcat 4 offers menu-driven installation that does most of the work
for you, yet allows you to customize directory names and control which files the program installs. As with any program, a basic understanding of DOS–especially editing your AUTOEXEC.BAT and CONFIG.SYS files–is desirable. If you don't feel confident enough to do this on your own, find a friend to help you or buy a good book on DOS.
Many Sysops consider the ability to customize their BBS the number
one consideration when choosing BBS software. But custom-tailoring takes time and often a Sysop is in a hurry to get their new board on-line. Seeing and working with "live" menus, rather than just pictures in a manual, is also a good way to help you decide exactly how you want to change the look and feel of your BBS. Wildcat 4 comes with pre-configured screens and a "basic setup" that gets you up and running quickly. (The manual says "in 1 hour or less." It took me a little longer than that but I encountered some special problems–described later.) Sooner or later though, you're going to want to … customize!
Put the Stripes or Spots on the Cat
My old software was downright flexible. I could make my BBS look and
act any number of ways. The problem was that I had to read volumes of instructions and then "hand write" the configuration files. That is, I created each custom menu or script in a generic text editor, with no on-line help, using cryptic commands that were (to me, anyway) less than obvious as to their use and purpose.
On the other hand, Wildcat 4 makes customization easy with
menu-driven configuration programs and a program for drawing great-looking screens. The Wildcat 4 manual is thorough in most areas; but, it doesn't go into enough detail about using the wcDRAW program (for drawing those great screens). I would welcome a separate manual with color screens and examples. Along with screens and menus, you may want to create access profiles (certain callers will have access to different parts of the BBS), special conference and file areas, bulletins, on-line questionnaires, and more. The easier it is to customize your BBS, the sooner you can turn your attention to enjoying your new board–knowing you have a truly unique system–different from all the others in town.
Menus. Menus are screens that allow the caller to navigate your
system. In Wildcat 4 a menu item can display a text file such as a news bulletin or newsletter, go to another menu, perform built-in functions including file uploads, downloads, scanning conferences for messages, and more. Each menu can have its own RIP, ANSI, ASCII, or a generic dynamic display screen. You can hide certain commands and areas of your BBS from all or some callers through the use of security profiles. Each security profile can have their own tailor-made menus up to a maximum of 650 menus.
Bulletins & Newsletters. The Sysop creates these special text files
and displays them to callers either automatically or as a menu choice. Bulletins might contain helpful advice about your system, business, organization, or anything you wish.
Questionnaires. Wildcat 4 has 4 types of questionnaires. You can
edit the existing questionnaires or create your own. Some uses for questionnaires include on-line order entry, surveys, voting, and gathering addresses, phone numbers, and other caller information.
Messages. One of the most fascinating and fun features of a bulletin
boards system is the message capabilities. Through messages written on-line, you can get to know your callers or they can meet other callers to your board. If you join a network, then you can exchange messages with other people in the network–across town or across the globe. A BBS may have both local conferences that exist only on that BBS, plus "echo" conferences that include messages from users throughout the network on other BBSs.
Wildcat 4 supports up to 32,760 message conferences with up to
65,520 messages per conference. (More than I'll ever need!) Message conference types include public and private messages, Fido Net-style private netmail, Internet E-Mail, and public Usenet Newsgroup messages. Users can scan and mark messages based on sender, receiver, subject, text, message number, and conference. The message editors (for entering new messages or replies) support spellchecking and quoting. You can setup message conferences on an individual basis to allow forwarding, carbon copies, return receipts, and file attachments. They can also be Read Only, Write Only, Join Only or any of the three combined. Also, each message conference can have its own set of bulletins, menus, questionnaires, help files, and display screens.
Files. Considered the "most important feature" by many BBS callers,
some Sysops take great pride in providing callers with the largest number of downloadable files possible. The more files that are available to callers, the greater the need for software that makes it easy for users to search and find specific files and download them. It must also be easy for the Sysop to add, delete, inspect, and move files, and edit file names and descriptions. If the software you are considering has limited file management capabilities, look for the existence of third party utilities that add these enhancements.
Like message conferences, Wildcat 4 handles a maximum of 32,760 file
areas and a mind-boggling total of 2 billion files. The file areas feature the most popular transfer protocols and support for external protocols. Files can have short and long file descriptions. A thumbnail option allows preview of GIF files. Multi-changer CD-ROM support extends your file areas beyond the limits of your hard drive. Other features include indexing; virus scan; password protection; duplicate file names; and built-in support for FILE_ID.DIZ and DESC.SDI.
Ms. Keller calls the underlying structure of Wildcat 4's message and
file databases "a double-edged sword." She cites fast scanning of message and file areas as a plus for the user. On the other hand, the way the it builds message areas makes nightly maintenance almost a requirement. In my own case, my BBS computer has a small hard drive. With hundreds of messages coming in daily it fills up fast. Although MSI does provide utilities for trimming back the messages it doesn't provide a way to trim messages "on the fly"–replacing older messages with newer ones rather than just adding to the database.
Wildcat 4's security profiles are one of its most valuable features.
At first I didn't understand their full potential but the more I work with the software the more I learn. With security profiles you can customize your BBS for a variety of purposes and users. Based on their security profile, you can give one group of users access to certain message or file areas only or just certain functions. With up to 1000 security profiles available, you could make it appear that you are running 1000 different BBSs! As an example, perhaps you want to run a BBS for your Cross-stitch Club and another BBS with on-line games and technical computer discussion areas–both using the same phone number, computer, and software. By assigning the members of your Cross-stitch Club one security profile, and the game players/computer buffs another profile you can hide portions of the BBS from each group. The menus, bulletins, available file areas, and message conferences would appear different to each t caller.
Dog & Cat Fights
At some point, or from the beginning, you may want to expand your
BBS to include a message or file network such as Fido Net, Postlink, or the Internet. These networks consist of message conferences or groups of files that Sysops transfer among all BBSs that belong to that network. Callers to your BBS can read and post their own messages to the conferences that the network then routes from system to system. Some networks cover small geographic areas or have set discussion subjects. Others may be international in scope or carry hundreds of topics. The file networks allow you to receive automatically certain types of files or request specific files.
If this type of expansion is important to you--be aware that not all
BBS software packages meet the specific requirements that some networks place on message formats or transfer methods. Or, they may require extra programs to work right. I found out almost immediately that Wildcat 4 is not "Fido-friendly" straight out of the box. When I started The Bear Necessities, I knew I wanted to connect to Fido Net–one of the oldest volunteer networks in the world. The author of my original BBS software specifically designed it to handle Fido Net messaging requirements and to work flawlessly with a number of other programs required for network compatibility.
Wildcat 4 will work with Fido Net netmail and echo mail. But it
needs help. A small but growing number of utilities are available from other vendors–most are shareware–that handle the special needs of Fido Net plus work with Wildcat. Help with connecting to most networks has to come from other Sysops. The MSI support staff can't provide much help on that front. But there are a lot of Wildcat Sysops out there willing to assist. If you now use an earlier version of Wildcat, you may find that your current utilities (front-end, mail tosser, etc.) will need upgrading to work with the significant changes in Wildcat 4.
The recent deluge of books, articles, and television shows about the
"Information Superhighway" has many new and old Sysops itching to explore one of its main thoroughfares–the Internet. MSI offers an add-on program for Wildcat 4 called wcGATE. This program, coupled with a UUCP account from an Internet provider makes Internet E-mail, Usenet Newsgroups, and uuencoded file transfers available to the Wildcat 4 BBS. wcGATE also works with Novels' MHS server for MHS E-mail and file attaches.
In addition to the wcDRAW program mentioned earlier, Wildcat 4 has
other essential utility programs that make setup, maintenance, and operation easier. wcMAIL is a QWK-compatible mail door that creates packets of messages, bulletins, and file lists for callers to download and read off-line with their favorite QWK mail reader. wcFILE handles maintenance of the file areas while you use wcPACK to trim the number of messages by date or number. wcMODEM helps set up your modem to work with Wildcat 4. wcCHAT is the program for live chat between users (on a multi-line/multi-node system). wcECHO gives you the ability to participate in echomail systems that use the QWK-style message networking. These programs are all part of the Wildcat 4 package.
Kittens for Sale
MSI provides some utility programs for separate purchase to expand
the capabilities of your BBS. In addition to the wcGATE software for Internet/MHS, there is wcPRO with wcFAX that adds more powerful database functions to manage your user records, files, messages, and more. The wcFAX program adds fax-on-demand capabilities. Another powerful program that benefits every Wildcat 4 Sysop–whether they have the program or not–is wcCODE. It is a development tool that allows Sysops to write programs for their own BBS or to give (or sell) to other Sysops. Ms. Keller notes that "there are legions of Wildcat Sysops writing wcCODE applications to fill in whatever gaps one may feel there are with Wildcat 4. They're easy to implement and many of them are either free or exceptionally low cost."
When Kitty Ignores the Litter Box
Even the best software in the world has its "bad hairball days."
Because your callers, your business, or your club depend on your BBS, you need to know that help is readily available when things go wrong.
MSI makes help easy to find. On MSI's own Wildcat BBS I found the
guidance and programs I needed to connect my Wildcat BBS to Fido Net. I've also found answers in the Mustang Software section of CompuServe. Mustang has support sections on Genie and America On-line too. They also have an Internet mailing address for tech support, a voice support number, and their own MSI SupportNET echo conferences carried on boards around the world. You not only get fast, friendly support from their own staff, but in the on-line conferences you can share experiences with hundreds of other new and experienced Wildcat Sysops.
A Wild, Wild Ride
I wish I could say that the switch from my previous software to
Wildcat 4 was seamless and painless, for my callers and myself. The Fido Net connection problems caused a few extra gray hairs. However, the installation of Wildcat 4 and setting up the basic operation of the BBS couldn't have been easier. Like some other powerful programs I've reviewed, I found myself caught up in some of the "fun" features and trying to use utilities that I hadn't taken time to study. Now I'm ready to slow down, take my time, and fully explore this feature-rich program. The mail is flowing so now it's time to "make it pretty" too.
I just celebrated my first anniversary as a Sysop and I look forward
to my first anniversary as a Wildcat Sysop. Perhaps later on, I can bring you some more tales about my jungle explorations and Wildcat encounters. As a longtime user of Wildcat 3 and 4, Cathy Keller guided me through some of the steps of switching to Wildcat. She tells me, "this is going to sound sappy, but I'm really proud to be a Wildcat Sysop." She and I both happily recommend it to any new or experienced Sysop. But, like any software package, choose it because it has the features you need–not just because it gets rave reviews.
Wildcat! Single Line (version reviewed) Recommended Software: DOS 3.3 or higher Recommended Hardware: IBM AT or true compatible, 512K RAM, high density floppy, 15 MB hard drive space, RS232 serial port with external modem and cable or internal modem, voice grade telephone line.
Wildcat! MultiLine 10 and 250 Recommended Software: DOS 3.3 or higher, DESQview 386, OS/2, or Windows, for multiple lines on one PC. Network applications require Novell Netware or LAN software that uses DOS SHARE for file and record locking. Recommended Hardware: Multitasking on a single PC: 386-33mhz or higher with 1-2 MB RAM per dial-in node, hard drive. LAN connections: IBM AT or true compatible, 512K RAM, no floppy required. A serial port and external modem or internal modem and voice grade telephone line is required for each incoming modem connection.
Wildcat! MultiLine Platinum Recommended Software: DOS 3.3 or higher, DESQview 386, OS/2, or Windows, for multiple lines on one PC. Network applications require Novell Netware or LAN software that uses DOS SHARE for file and record locking. Recommended Hardware: Minimum 486-33, 8-16 MB RAM, hard drive. Serial I/O boards required to run 8 lines are PC/8e or PC/8i Digiboard with connecting cable or multi-port serial card that is FOSSIL compatible. An external modem and voice grade telephone line are required for each incoming modem connection.
Mustang Software, Inc.
6200 Lake Ming Road Bakersfield, CA 93303 805-873-2500
Send your postal name, address, city, state, zip to email@example.com for product literature to be sent to you via postal mail.