Internet Gurus Guide to UNIX Shell Accounts

Table of contents
The Web
Usenet news IRC
File transfer

For readers of The Internet For Dummies and our other books, here's information about how to use a UNIX shell account, that is, an Internet account that requires you to type UNIX commands.

UNIX accounts are the old-fashioned way to connect to the Internet. You can use most basic Internet services (like e-mail and the Web), but you can't see any pictures or graphics -- it's all text. If you're stuck with a UNIX shell account, this Web page explains how to use them. If you sign up with almost any ISP these days, you get a better account -- a PPP account, which lets you nifty programs like Netscape and Internet Explorer.

We assume that you don't know how to use UNIX already. When you use the Internet through a UNIX shell provider, the more UNIX you know, the better. So if you want to make your Internet life more fun, learn more UNIX. Get a copy of UNIX For Dummies, 4th Edition and UNIX For Dummies Quick Reference, brought to you by people you know and trust.

Enough plugs for books -- on with the explanation!

Command Performance

UNIX shell providers provide Internet access to the highly motivated. After you've successfully logged in to a shell account, nothing happens. It's up to you to tell it what to do. If you don't do anything for a long enough period of time, most providers will disconnect you, on the theory that you've fallen asleep and won't be back until the next morning. If you already know how to use UNIX, presumably you know what to do. If you don't, this section discusses some of the basics about UNIX commands to get you started.

UNIX commands tell UNIX which program to run. To run a particular program, you type its name and press the Enter key. Most programs you use to access the Internet are described elsewhere in this book. To use e-mail, for example, you run the Pine program, if you are lucky, or the elm or mail programs if you are not. To read Usenet news, you use a newsreader such as trn, described below.

Type It Right

Here are the rules that apply to typing UNIX commands:
  • If you make a typing mistake, press the Backspace key (or try Delete or Ctrl-H).
  • To cancel the entire command before you press Enter, press Ctrl-U (occasionally Ctrl-K). The command disappears.
  • When you finish typing a command, press Enter.
  • If you type a command that UNIX doesn't know, it displays a message saying that it couldn't find the command. What probably happened is that you mistyped the command.
  • UNIX cares about capitalization. Enter commands as they appear here, or else UNIX won't recognize them. UNIX considers ls and LS to be two totally different commands. Most UNIX commands are in all lowercase. When you're typing filenames, upper- and lowercase matter too: FROG, Frog, FrOg, and frog are four different names and may be four different files. (We didn't say that this would be easy.)
  • Don't stick any extra spaces in the middle of commands. Do, however, type a space after a command and before any other information you type on the command line.

If you're stuck, type help. Not all UNIX providers have a help command, but you never know.

Many providers have files set up with lots of useful information for new users. Make sure that you read everything your provider suggested that you read before you take the next step.

If you're really stuck, send an e-mail message to "staff" or "" (replacing "" with your UNIX shell account provider's domain name). If you're even stucker than that, call your provider on the phone and pose your question to a real person.

Hanging Up

When you're ready to leave, type exit or logout. Your provider logs you off. It hangs up the phone, too, if you are using a dial-up account.

Welcome to the World Wide Web

You can indeed get to the World Wide Web from your regular UNIX account. You use Lynx, a text-based Web browser. Lynx isn't as nice as Netscape (nor as famous), but it provides 80 percent of the useful stuff that Netscape and Internet Explorer do.

Sending and Receiving Mail

Pine is a nice mail program that should be installed somewhere on your shell provider's system. If you can't find it, ask your provider where it is, and, if it's really not there, insist that it be installed. It's free; it's flexible; it's what you want.

Your e-mail address is the combination of your username and your provider's address. If you know other people on your provider's system, you can send mail directly to the user without including the provider's address.

Reading Newsgroups

Usenet was born in a UNIX environment. You can read Usenet newsgroups using a newsreading program named trn.

Grabbing Files

You can transfer files to and from the Internet from your UNIX account, using FTP (File Transfer Protocol). The UNIX FTP command is (believe it or not) ftp.

Telnet, Finger, Ping, and Gopher

UNIX offers a few truly old-fashioned Internet services, including telnet (for logging into other UNIX systems), finger (for finding out about other people), ping (for testing your Internet connection), and Gopher (a menu-based information system that has been replaced by the Web).

Uploading and Downloading

One of the toughest ideas to get used to when you're connecting to the Internet from your very own computer is where in the world your information is. When you read mail or news on a UNIX shell account, mail and articles you save get saved in an area assigned to your account on the provider's computer. After you've disconnected from that account, you can no longer read whatever you left there until you dial back in.

The process of transferring files from your provider's account to your home computer is called downloading. The process of transferring files from your home computer is called uploading. Uploading and downloading tend to frustrate most of us until we've done it several zillion times and are more sure of what we're doing.

Here are the basics: To upload and download, you use the communications software that connects your Mac or PC to your UNIX shell provider. What gets tricky is who's sending and who's receiving. In reality, you're almost always sending -- it's more a matter of where you're sending from.

To send files from your UNIX shell provider to your Mac or PC, type the following command:

sz filename

where filename is the name of the file you want to send to your computer. Some communications packages, such as MicroPhone, display a reassuring window that shows you exactly how many bits are flying across the wire. Others keep you in suspense until you finally get a message back on the UNIX side saying that it is finished.

To send files from your PC or Mac to your shell provider, you have to find the send command in your communications software package. When you have a choice of which protocol to use to send, choose Zmodem. When you have a choice of file format, choose binary. When the transfer is complete, you should be able to see the file in your directory on the UNIX system when you type ls to list the files you have.

Every communications package is different, but they all do the same thing. If you're lucky enough to have a manual that describes your software, consult it for details about uploading or downloading.

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Updated: Mar 13, 2001

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