$ grep kermit /etc/services kermit 1649/tcp
What is this mysterious protocol? Who uses it and what is its story?
This story is a winding one, beginning in 1981. Kermit is, to the best of my knowledge, the oldest actively-maintained software package with an original developer still participating. It is also a scripting language, an Internet server, a (scriptable!) SSH client, and a file transfer protocol.
And my first use of it was talking to my HP-48GX calculator over a 9600bps serial link. Yes, that calculator had a Kermit server built in.
But let’s back up and talk about serial ports and Modems.
Serial Ports and Modems
In my piece The PC & Internet Revolution in Rural America, I recently talked about getting a modem – what an excitement it was to get one! I realize that many people today have never used a serial line or a modem, so let’s briefly discuss.
Before Ethernet and Wifi took off in a big way, in the 1990s-2000s, two computers would talk to each other over a serial line and a modem. By modern standards, these were slow; 300bps was a common early speed. They also (at least in the beginning) had no kind of error checking. Characters could be dropped or changed. Sometimes even those speeds were faster than the receiving device could handle. Some serial links were 7-bit, and wouldn’t even pass all 7-bit characters; for instance, sending a Ctrl-S could lock up a remote until you sent Ctrl-Q.
And computers back in the 1970s and 1980s weren’t as uniform as they are now. They used different character sets, different line endings, and even had different notions of what a file is. Today’s notion of a file as whatever set of binary bytes an application wants it to be was by no means universal; some systems treated a file as a set of fixed-length records, for instance.
So there were a lot of challenges in reliably moving files between systems. Kermit was introduced to reliably move files between systems using serial lines, automatically working around the varieties of serial lines, detecting errors and retransmitting, managing transmit speeds, and adapting between architectures as appropriate. Quite a task! And perhaps this explains why it was supported on a calculator with a primitive CPU by today’s standards.
Serial communication, by the way, is still commonplace, though now it isn’t prominent in everyone’s home PC setup. It’s used a lot in industrial equipment, avionics, embedded systems, and so forth.
The key point about serial lines is that they aren’t inherently multiplexed or packetized. Whereas an Ethernet network is designed to let many dozens of applications use it at once, a serial line typically runs only one (unless it is something like PPP, which is designed to do multiplexing over the serial line).
So it become useful to be able to both log in to a machine and transfer files with it. That is, incidentally, still useful today.
Kermit and XModem/ZModem
I wondered: why did we end up with two diverging sets of protocols, created at about the same time? The Kermit website has the answer: essentially, BBSs could assume 8-bit clean connections, so XModem and ZModem had much less complexity to worry about. Kermit, on the other hand, was highly flexible. Although ZModem came out a few years before Kermit had its performance optimizations, by about 1993 Kermit was on par or faster than ZModem.
Beyond serial ports
As LANs and the Internet came to be popular, people started to use telnet (and later ssh) to connect to remote systems, rather than serial lines and modems. FTP was an early way to transfer files across the Internet, but it had its challenges. Kermit added telnet support, as well as later support for ssh (as a wrapper around the
ssh command you already know). Now you could easily log in to a machine and exchange files with it without missing a beat.
And so it was that the Internet Kermit Service Daemon (IKSD) came into existence. It allows a person to set up a Kermit server, which can authenticate against local accounts or present anonymous access akin to FTP.
Trying Out the quux.org Kermit Server
There are more instructions on the quux.org Kermit Server page! You can connect to it using either telnet or the kermit program. I won’t duplicate all of the information here, but here’s what it looks like to connect:
$ kermit C-Kermit 10.0 Beta.08, 15 Dec 2022, for Linux+SSL (64-bit) Copyright (C) 1985, 2022, Trustees of Columbia University in the City of New York. Open Source 3-clause BSD license since 2011. Type ? or HELP for help. (/tmp/t/) C-Kermit>iksd /user:anonymous kermit.quux.org DNS Lookup... Trying 126.96.36.199... Reverse DNS Lookup... (OK) Connecting to host glockenspiel.complete.org:1649 Escape character: Ctrl-\ (ASCII 28, FS): enabled Type the escape character followed by C to get back, or followed by ? to see other options. ---------------------------------------------------- >>> Welcome to the Internet Kermit Service at kermit.quux.org <<< To log in, use 'anonymous' as the username, and any non-empty password Internet Kermit Service ready at Fri Aug 4 22:32:17 2023 C-Kermit 10.0 Beta.08, 15 Dec 2022 kermit Enter e-mail address as Password: [redacted] Anonymous login. You are now connected to the quux kermit server. Try commands like HELP, cd gopher, dir, and the like. Use INTRO for a nice introduction. (~/) IKSD>
You can even recursively download the entire Kermit mirror: over 1GB of files!
So, have fun. Enjoy this experience from the 1980s.
And note that Kermit also makes a better ssh client than ssh in a lot of ways; see ideas on my Kermit page.
This page also has a permanent home on my website, where it may be periodically updated.