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CSAIL's user database, WebINQUIR

On December 30, 2009, TIG installed a new version CSAIL's INQUIR user database. This is the fourth rewrite of INQUIR in its thirty-year history, and because it is now primarily a Web-based application, we are calling it WebINQUIR (CSAIL Certificates required). This update has been several years in the making—work on it began in 2006—but we think the wait has been worth it. We know that there are still a number of bugs lurking in obscure corners of the system, so please report any errors to help@csail and be patient as we try to resolve them as quickly as possible.

What's new for users

For the first time, CSAIL users have easy and direct control over their INQUIR entries. Users visiting WebINQUIR (CSAIL Certificates required) have the option of editing their own data, editing the data of other users they are authorized to change, searching for users by name, and getting information about the system. If they are supervisors, they can approve new account requests, renew expiring accounts, and edit most attributes of their supervisees' accounts. On browsers which support JavaScript, user data can be edited from the "show" screen one field at a time.

All changes made to user accounts, whether by themselves, by supervisors, or by administrators, are logged to an audit trail; these changes are bundled up every five minutes and mailed to the relevant supervisors and group administrators.

Users can now create and change their own (single-address) email aliases without administrator intervention. (Previously this was possible only for full-fledged mailman mailing-lists [CSAIL Certificates required].)

What's new for administrators

All administrative operations are performed through the Web user interface; the old inquir-cui program is gone. (The existing finger and whois interfaces have been preserved and updated to understand the new database schema.)

New user accounts

The new user account signup application has a new URL, to avoid some browser-compatibility problems. New users will now be required to provide a valid (pre-existing) email address when they sign up for an account, so that notifications can be mailed to an account where they already read mail when their account is created. In addition, administrators now have the option of rejecting account requests, so bogus requests no longer require manual intervention. Valid requests are created completely and automatically as soon as you approve them: no more waiting for TIG to run the account-creation script by hand.

User expiration

Most new user accounts will automatically expire at the end of the term (or, if they were created within 45 days of the end of the end of the term, at the end of the next term). Supervisors (or their delegated group administrators) will be expected to handle account expirations for their users at the end of every term. Expiring users can be renewed (those who have graduated can be renewed indefinitely) or allowed to expire, as appropriate for their status.


The original INQUIR was written by PDP-10 hackers in the late 1970s for managing user accounts on our ITS and TOPS-20 machines. The second version was written some time in the late 1980s by LCS staff as the PDP-10s were being replaced by VAXen running 4.3BSD; this version was ported to SunOS by Net Daemons Associates around 1991. Garrett Wollman wrote the third version in 1999 as a part of Y2K preparedness (and also to speed along the demise of Kerberos v4 authentication, which the old VAX/Sun program and its Emacs-based user interface used); it was the first to have a relational-database back-end, and its user interface was primarily written in Perl. INQUIR 3.0 accumulated numerous ad-hoc CGI hacks over the years to provide some level of Web accessibility, but the primary user interface remained a crufty old Perl script, inquir-cui. The current implementation maintains the same database back-end as its predecessor, with a few small schema changes, but replaces the existing moldering scripts with a new Ruby on Rails front-end, which adds a number of much-needed abstraction layers.

-- GarrettWollman - 31 Dec 2009
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Topic revision: 04 Jun 2010, MeganRiley

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