My changing workplace – part 4: Connecting across the 90's

With the advent of the networked world, we have moved from the ability to reach people when we want to speak to them, to a world where we are connected to people even when we aren’t paying attention

Daniel W. Rasmus

The computing world has always involved networks, but they have radically changed and the 1990’s was a time of technology explosion and subsequent consolidation as the network became the utility service that we expect today.

Today I sit in an office and there are three networks available to me. There’s a wired network using Cat 5 UTP Ethernet, there’s a wireless network using Wi-Fi and there’s also the packet based 3G network that my phone and Kindle are using.

Each of these networks is using TCP/IP as the transport protocol.

(This desk also happens to have an analogue phone connected that’s also using the UTP flood-wiring, but that’s a legacy of when it was built.)

Everywhere I go I expect one of these three connections to be available. What’s more I expect my connection to connect me to everything (the only exception to this is that I’m in my corporate office and there are restrictions on which sites I can access on the Internet).

I expect to be able to connect to a network and get working quickly without having to reconfigure anything. As I wander around my mobile phone connects to different networks without me having to do anything.

These local connections provide me with high speed connections to other places including the other side of the world.

To print – I use the network.

Storing data – I use the network.

Finding information – I use the network.

Communication – I use the network.

I connect to the network, there’s only one of them.

At the start of the 1990’s the network’s job was to provide connections from a terminal to the central computer. There was limited connectivity between systems, but that was all about to change.

In the mid-to-late-90’s the consolidation to a standard way of doing things was already well on it’s way, but there was still a good deal of work to do.

We already had a number of ways of connecting things. There was the IBM SNA network that provided terminal connections to the IBM Mainframe. There were numerous thin-wire Ethernet networks providing access to the Digital VAX services running DECNet. There were other thin-wire Ethernet networks connecting various UNIX devices together. There was even some token-ring networks connecting PCs together (which had some of the most robust plugs anyone could wish to have) and running the LAN Manager protocol NETBEUI. There were also some Ethernet networks running IPX for Netware and connected even more PCs. The Mac’s ran AppleTalk. There were even some PCs running DECNet and DEC Pathworks.

Between sites there were X.25 and SNA connections.

There were a whole load of printer switch-boxes that connected multiple PCs to HP LaserJet and InkJet printers via their parallel ports.

In summary, a whole mishmash of connections and connection types. There were islands of connectivity all over the place.

Many of these connections would still be needed in the future, and that’s where emulation software came in. For part of my life I became the world’s expert in IBM terminal emulation software, a vital skill that is no longer needed, a cul-de-sac I’m glad I decided to move out of.

At some point in the early 90’s I went to Manchester University to talk to them about a new way of displaying information – Hypertext Mark-up Language (HTML). It was displayed using an application called Mosaic, you would type in a funny address (URL) and wait for the page to display, eventually. Mosaic was soon to be replaced by Netscape and then by early versions of Internet Explorer. We also looked at a way of retrieving information called Gopher that went off and found articles from universities around the country. Gopher was soon to be replaced by a new company called Google. The university was connected to the JANET network which was already connected to other networks using TCP/IP and routers, a network that we would come to know as the Internet.

At home I had a PC with a modem connected to it. The modem would connect to a service called Compuserve. It was only really good for two things, a limited form of email and bulletin boards. Some people jumped onto the AOL bandwagon, but for me it was the free ISP Freeserve that pulled me into the Internet age. My laptops still has a modem built into it, I have no idea why.

At some point in the latter 90’s my Grandma came to visit. She wanted to know what this thing called email was, she’d heard about it on the television. I decided that the best way to explain was to demonstrate. So I started the computer, typed in the email address of my brother who was working on a cruise liner somewhere near the Bahamas and composed a short message. Having clicked on the send button and listened to the modem kick into action, I explained to her that it was just like the normal mail only down the telephone line. She was almost OK with this explanation. What completely blew her away though was the reply that I received from my brother before I’d disconnected. She knew that my brother was at sea, so how did the message get to him? As Arthur C. Clarke said:

Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.

Sun had the slogan "The Network is the Computer" but only the most visionary of thinkers can have imagined what was ahead. But any computer is only useful if we can interact with it, and we normally interact using applications and applications were also going through a massive change. That will, however, have to wait until next time.

My changing workplace:

8 thoughts on “My changing workplace – part 4: Connecting across the 90's”

  1. I also remember at this time there were lots of solutions around to bridge the various networks, or add different network stacks to unusual devices. I particularly remember the TCP/IP stack for the IBM mainframe being evaluated.

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