Frequently Asked Questions

HCS is a student organization at Harvard devoted to promoting interest in computers, technology, good technology policy, and the study of computer science. We've been around since at least 1983, which gives us the fine distinction of being older than our average member. HCS members come from all fields, from History to Biology to Computer Science, and from many different parts of Harvard, from Harvard College to many different graduate schools, prominently the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences.

HCS was founded to publish the Harvard Computer Review and Computing@Harvard, two magazines which ultimately couldn't be as current as the internet. We've since moved on to other projects. Our longest-running and most widely recognized project provides a suite of computer services to student groups. Notably, our mailing list service has thousands of active lists and gets around ten thousand unique messages on a good day. We've been involved with everything from helping students get connected to the campus network back when it was strange and new to advocating for more secure university ID cards just last year.

You can learn more about HCS by visiting our about page and learn about joining by visiting our members page. You can also learn about the services we offer by visiting our Account Services page.

Harvard Computer Society (HCS) offers two free web services available to Harvard affiliates: mailing lists and web accounts.

Mailing lists provide an efficient way to facilitate announcements to or discussion among student groups, houses, study groups, blockmates, or groups of friends. It is easy to add any number of Harvard and non-Harvard addresses to a mailing list, and administering them is simple and requires little technical expertise. They have the form, and can be created here.

Web accounts are a simple way for any Harvard student group, official or unofficial, to host webpages with a few hundred MB of space, mysql database, and a mailing address. The websites are hosted at, and can be requested here.

You can find out more about our services on our Account Services page or by contacting us.

Anyone in the Harvard community can apply for any of the services offered by HCS. In order to get a mailing list, you only need a valid (or e-mail address. You can make a list instantly at our list page. If you would like a full account with web a website and a real e-mail address, you should fill out the form here. Again, anyone in the Harvard community can apply for an account as long as it has a specific purpose and benefits a group of people.

If you would like a personal account for any reason, you can get one by joining HCS as a prospective member. We give accounts to prospective members after they've attended and participated in two regularly scheduled HCS meetings.

Besides our many and various projects, HCS also runs a series of events throughout the year. These include hosting prominent speakers (in the past we've had Steve Ballmer, Steve Wozniak, Stephen Wolfram, Paul Graham, and Cory Doctorow, for example), discussions with faculty and researchers in computer science, panels with leaders in industry (including executives from S&P 500 companies), tech talks by engineers from interesting companies like Google and Facebook, tours of the Harvard NOC and main datacenter, seminars on how computers or the internet work, workshops on how to make the most of technology, and whatever else we can come up with.

Beyond events, HCS is involved in advocacy for good technology policy at Harvard. We maintain close relationships with many of the people who set policies that affect students and we've helped to make sure that an informed student voice is always part of major decisions. Our current focus involves advocating for more open and transparent policies in several areas. We've also helped courses expand their technical capabilities, most prominently through a collaboration with the new CS 50 in the fall of 2007.

HCS also hosts the annual Datamatch service, which uses advanced computer technology to pair Harvard students just in time for Valentine's Day.

You can find out more at our about page.

HCS projects are as diverse as our members: working with the university to better technology policy, managing and securing a production web server, talking about computer science problems, building and destroying computers, etc. A more complete list can be found on our about page.

The best way to get a sense of our projects is to stop by a meeting. We meet weekly in the Student Organization Center at Hilles (SOCH 307) on Tuesdays starting at 8 and running late into the evening.

To become a prospective member of HCS, all you need to do is express some interest and come to and participate in at least two regularly scheduled meetings, also known as "office hours." Often, we count certain other events for the purpose of obtaining an account, so you should feel free to ask, particularly if you can't make office hours for some reason.

To become a full-fledged member, you'll need to get involved with one of HCS's many projects. If you come to one of our events and talk to us, we can help you find something that you're interested in and help you get started. Once you have done some work on a project that has been approved by the Membership Coordinator, you'll be eligible for membership elections late in the semester. Members get special privileges, like the ability to run for and vote for the board, the ability to vote on actions of the board, etc. Also, unlike the account FAS gives you, HCS member accounts don't expire.

You must be an active Harvard student to become a member. However, if you aren't an active student, the board can still designate you an honorary member. You should contact us if you're interested.

Absolutely! Most of us didn't know very much when we joined either. In fact, some of our most successful members had never programmed before joining HCS. We're happy to teach you everything we know, just as we learned it from the HCS members before us. So don't be afraid to join without experience and ask a lot of questions. All we ask is that you're interested and excited by technology, just like we are. Similarly, you don't have to be a CS concentrator to join HCS. In fact, historically, CS concentrators have been a minority of HCS members, who have studied everything from History to Biology to Mathematics or Physics.

You should probably contact the board and someone can help you. We gladly accept donations (for a long time, we ran entirely on donated hardware) to support our various projects. If you're donating something of value, like money or computer hardware, we can arrange for the donation to be tax-deductible, but we need to know in advance so that we can channel it through the right part of the university.

HCS has regularly scheduled weekly meetings, called "office hours." Mostly, this is a chance for us to get together and discuss the status of various projects, to work through any problems that we're having, to have one-on-one contact with the people who use our services, and a really good excuse to eat pizza. Sometimes, we have special guests such as alumni or faculty members or we do special things like event planning. There's also plenty of good company and good discussion. And did we mention the pizza?

We have a very cool office in SOCH 307. You should come by and check it out. We have several workstations, a rack full of servers, and a small but growing library of technical books. If you become an HCS member, we'll also give you access to this office so that you can come and work there if you so desire.

Office hours are scheduled regularly and are approximately weekly. They're currently Wednesdays from 7-9pm or later, but you should check our front page for the most up-to-date information.

Yes! Just come to our office hours, which happen approximately weekly in our office at SOCH 307. Currently, they're scheduled on Tuesdays from 8-10 or later, although this is subject to change and you should check our homepage for the most up-to-date information.

We're happy to answer questions, help you get started with your account, and point you to resources that might be helpful. We can't build your website for you, although we can help you figure out easy ways to get started and we can point out where you can get help. We can also help you figure out how to use technology, whether ours or someone else's, to manage your student group more effectively.

If you're doing something really complicated and high-impact and you don't know where to start, you might consider pitching it to the HCS board as a potential HCS project. If that's the case, you should contact us.

We're usually very willing to listen to your idea, particularly if it's really crazy and will change the lives of people at Harvard and beyond. If you've got an interesting idea for a project, you should come up with a pitch and contact the HCS board. We regularly help out or take on interesting projects and give them computing resources, people resources, connections to the Harvard administration, etc. We're particularly good at absorbing projects and turning them into things that live perpetually, rather than things that die when their founder/author graduates. If you want help or resources but still want to lead your project, you should consider joining HCS and making your project an official HCS project. Then you can try to recruit a fiefdom. Er, following.

If, on the other hand, you're looking for developers for your club/website/startup, we're probably not interested and you should consider instead writing up a pitch and sending it to the hcs-jobs mailing list. If you really think we might be interested, you should still contact us. We're very friendly and usually willing to help send you in the right direction even if it doesn't involve us directly.
contains every list setting you could ever dream of.

First, HCS runs a useful tool called phpMyAdmin at You can view and modify many of your database settings here. You can also access your MySQL database from the command line by typing

mysql -h -u group-name_here -p

at the command prompt. Enter your MySQL password when prompted.

Some settings you would use in connecting to the database in a php script:

DB = group_name
DBUSER = group_name (same)
DBPASS = your_mysql_password
Yes! If you don't have an account, you can request one now at Then see for information on setting this up. Once everything is configured, your site will magically appear at your domain name. Amazing!

You probably don't have one! Passwords set with sftppasswd are reset each morning at 4am. We regulate access to our accounts with access lists instead. To get into your account you need to be on this access list, in which case you won't be asked for a password. Other people on the access list can add you-- see "How do I add/remove somebody from the group's access list?" below.

Log in to your group account, and type access. You'll want to use option B for people with fas accounts and option E for everyone else.

Since the spring of 2005, HCS home directory data has been stored on a network appliance filer, courtesy of a very generous alum. A network appliance filer, for those of you who don't keep track of such things, is a fancy computer with some really big hard disks and a bunch of nify features, designed to make things like storing home directories safer and more convenient. Among the great bells and whistles include snapshot directories: every hour, every night, and every week, the filer takes a "picture" of your home directory and stores it somewhere for you to get at in the case of an emergency. To get at your snapshots, type:

ls .zfs/snapshot

from your home directory. You'll see something like this:

jharvard-hcs@hera:~$ ls .zfs/snapshot
hourly.0 nightly.0 weekly.0 weekly.2
hourly.1 nightly.1 weekly.1

The numbers start at 0 for most recent and count up as the snapshots get older. To get the most recent copy of a file called "foo.txt," sit in your home directory and type:

cp .zfs/snapshot/hourly.0/foo.txt

If you need help with this or with anything else, feel free to contact with the details of what you're trying to do.

Faulty permissions can cause lots of trouble!

If permissions are set too low, you will get 403 Forbidden errors when loading pages; if they're set too high, an attacker may be able to rewrite anything on your site at will. To fix permissions on your account, SSH into HCS and enter these commands

find ~/web/ -type d -exec chmod 755 {} \; - Fixes permissions for directories
find ~/web/ -type f -exec chmod 644 {} \; - Fixes permissions for files

This should prevent others from writing to your files, although insecure PHP code can still be used to hose your website with spam. But for now, if you're new to PHP and Ruby on Rails, try to only use well-maintained and well-known packages like Wordpress or Drupal, follow their instructions carefully, and keep your code up-to-date.

A complete tutorial is available on how to get into your HCS account for the first time.

Unix (including Macs): type
into a terminal prompt ("Terminal" on Macs) and enter your FAS password.
Say yes to any questions about authentication.

Windows: download SecureCRT from here and connect to with your FAS username and password.

Then: From the fas% prompt, type
(note the hcs (that's us!) in place of the fas above)
If you are on the access list for the group, you should get a prompt at your group account (something like hera:~>), and if you aren't you will be asked for a password, which you won't know (we only provide access through FAS or with SSH keys).

We authenticate non-fas users via RSA/DSA keys. You can generate a public/private key pair as follows:

Unix (including Macs): type
ssh-keygen -t dsa
into a terminal prompt ("Terminal" on Macs), and it will run you through the process (selecting the default settings/values is fine). The OpenSSH keyfile, also known as the public key, is the long string of random characters that gets printed to the screen at the end (also found by default at ~/.ssh/

Windows: SecureCRT can do it, under Tools>Create Public Key...

Not sure how to make this work? We now have an in-depth tutorial on setting up OpenSSH keys with your HCS account.

Yes. Rails is a bit complex, but we're working on making it easy. In general, you should ask us if you need something - we're very friendly. And if you're really interested in using Rails or another application server, you might be interested in helping us figure out the best way to support them.


1. First set an sftp password with the command "sftppasswd" from the command line.

2. Then open Dreamweaver, click manage sites, select your site and hit edit, and go the the advanced tab.

3. On the side menu there, click "Remote info", then choose an access of "FTP" and then fill out FTP host is "", host directory is "~group_name_here/web/folder_name" and login and password are "group_name" and the sftppassword that you set earlier. Check the "use secure ftp" box.

4. Then, you can sync your website.