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XANSYS History

 

XANSYS History

By Dan Bohlen

The folks at PADT once mentioned it would be nice to add to the XANSYS lore a brief history of the XANSYS list.  I came up with this not-so-brief history.  I've tried to pull together from what I can recall - and a few documents I had left behind to piece the history together.  Please consider this a "wiki" history and I invite other old-timers to chime in with corrections, additions etc.  I decided to organize the history based on the system that was used at the time to pass the list messages.

UNIX Era

Part of the XANSYS story is my story.  The year was 1994 and after ten years as a design engineer I had seen the light (thank you John Crawford) and had switched jobs into a full time analyst role.  I had used FEA a bit as a design engineer, but my new group was one of the elite hard-core analysis sections here at Aviation.  I had a lot to learn.  It was also about the time GE was started to embrace the Internet.  It was an interesting time in the stress group as well.  They had a long, successful history of using ANSYS 4.4a, but the writing was on the wall that at some point we had to transition to ANSYS 5+.  Being new in the group it worked out that I did some follow on work in 4.4a, but anything new it made sense for me to start in ANSYS 5.1.  So, not only was I learning the trade, but I was stumbling over ANSYS 5.1 bugs.  Once, I had a job where I couldn't repeat the results we had in 4.4a.  It turned out a Class III error in 4.4a was the culprit.  In ANSYS 5.1 a GUI error had also tripped me up, that we eventually turned it in and it became a Class III error.  

This early experience taught me two things: I wanted to get better access to the error reports and the wider group of folks I could ask and compare notes with, the better.  At the time it was frustrating: I could email the author of my favorite comic (Scott Adams/Dilbert), but I had no connection to the greater world of ANSYS users.  A buddy of mine who used a competing product mentioned they had a bulletin board system.  (In fact he was such a frequent poster - he eventually went to work for that company!)   I had no idea how to join or start something like that.  

Then it happened one day.  I had gotten myself included on the Class III email list.  And one set of reports came in with all the other subscriber email addresses attached - unintentional I assume.   It hit me: I'll just email these guys and see if they want to start up a list.  I'm no IT guy so I proposed folks just email me with a unique word in the subject line (XANs_LIST seemed easy to remember and unique enough at the time) and I'd write a mail rule to forward it to everyone on a distribution list I had set up.

This set up had many, many obvious issues.  No archive, I had to manually add folks to the list, and it was fun to hear my workstation clank away when there was a lot of postings.  There were some interesting meltdowns.  Once someone had an "out of office" auto-reply rule set up on their email - you can imagine the do loop that set up when his machine got a post from the list and auto-replied to the list, and then auto-replied to his own list posting!  

But the list caught on.  This group of folks was definitely hard-core users and often the local focal points at their companies.  The biggest addition to the list after a short time was when John Swanson, founder of ANSYS Inc., joined the list.  That was just incredible.  To me this was like Thomas Edison joining a list on the light bulb and inventing.  One of the early successes of the list at this time was identifying and issue when using multi-processors on SUN systems.  When it happened to me - I figured well odds are I did something wrong, or GE's install/machine was bad.  But with the list, folks would tried it out on their systems and within a day or two we had figured out it was a generic problem.

I didn't keep too many records of list statistics, but I did find a snapshot of members I took 11/3/1997 and there were 163 of us.

Majordomo Era

The younger folks on the list may never have heard of "majordomo" (great name for software).  It was the state-of-the-art listserver software in its day.   Well, the list postings were really making my desktop UNIX box hum at times, but then there was a lucky break.  I stumbled upon a corporate GE website where one could set up an external list (including non-GE folks) on a server. It was clunky, but the posts got through faster, there was some automation to subscribing and unsubscribing, there was some software protection from end-less auto-reply do-loops, and a primitive archive.  All for the same low price - free!  We rolled it out on May 22 1997.  I don't have complete statistics (maybe the PADT guys can wiki some in here - I believe folks have transferred the old archives into the new system.)  As of August 1998 there were about 400 subscribers (Some may have been dead email addresses - no automated way to dump them.) and about 20 posts per day.  The stay here was short lived.  This list got some attention here at GE because we filled up our archive space a couple of times.  When I was asking for more space, the corporate guys weren't so sure this was the type of list they expected their system to be used for.   They let me linger a short while, but let me know we better move on.

ONELIST/YAHOO Era

By this time there were many Internet companies offering free lists in order to generate ad revenue.  ONELIST was one of these start-ups.  Again, being free, we got what we paid for: most of the same amenities above, but there was one hitch.  We had to ask members not to put their email addresses in posts because there seemed to be spammers harvesting them.  On 12/1998   there were 373 XANSYS subscribers (probably about ½ were lurkers!)  With Internet consolidation ONELIST was bought by YAHOO and the XANSYS list picked up a silent sponsor to remove the ads that were attached to each post.   Without fanfare the folks at PADT were kind enough to pay the "no-ad" fees on YAHOO.

The list went through explosive growth over the next few years.  By 12/2000 there were 1,500+ subscribers and about 1,300 posts per month.  And there were growing pains.  Due to circumstances I had to hand over the administration of the list to a good college buddy of mine, Stan Sak, for a time.  The demographics of the list had changed considerably since 1997.  At that time most of the members were fairly experienced mechanical structural analysts.  By 2000 many other disciples had joined in - the EMAG, fluids, heat transfer, civil engineers.  Also a large number of the posts were from college students.  The list was definitely global in nature.  We needed the netiquette translated into French, German, and Italian.  

It was also at this time I tried to find a new home for the list.  The capabilities of YAHOO just couldn't manage a list of this size and volume of posts.  In 2000 my boss sent me to the ANSYS Conference (my only guess on why he sent me was my involvement with the list).  It was a great time meeting so many list members there and ANSYS Inc. folks I knew.  I took every opportunity I could to try to persuade folks from ANSYS Inc. to take over the list.  No luck.

A picture of the key XANSYS contributors at the 2000 user conference.  

(Source: Mike Hiller (www.in2solutions.com)

John Swanson and Dan Bohlen at the 2000 user conference
(Source: Mike Hiller (www.in2solutions.com)

 

It was soon after this the XANSYS holy wars started.  I was back in the listmiester role, but it was getting onerous.  We had folks posting from countries that could NOT have had a legitimate ANSYS license.  Many, many basic questions from the student sector and just a vast array of postings based on the different disciplines.  There was the occasional flame war and I had to de-list a couple of folks for a while.  We toyed with the idea of splitting the list into smaller narrowed focus lists and even one for professionals only.  There was much debate among list members over these topics/issues.  We actually lost a number of founding father subscribers due to the signal to noise ratio of the posts.   But the form of the list today was the outcome.  One list, the use of topic labels on the subject line, and the open list it is today.

PADT - the modern era

My prayers were answered on July 3, 2002 When Martin Liddle took over moderation tasks.  Then on June 19, 2003 PADT took over the list and put it on a server with dedicated software.  I was changing jobs to where I was less of a day in day out user of ANSYS so it was a good time to depart.   XANSYS now has a real searchable archive, few software issues, and an attentive, patient moderator (unlike me!)   The utility of the list is still so obvious that I know someone would have come up with the idea, I'm just glad I kicked it off first.

Oh, and the name?  Well there were two lists in the beginning; one Internal to GE and one eXternal.  So the external one was XANSYS.  Catchy, and I figured I wouldn't offend our friends in Canonsburg (or invite a trademark lawsuit if they hated the list!)  I pronounce it "X" - ANSYS.

 

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