Whatever happened to …

… computer networking cables?

It seems like so long ago but my first connection to the internet was via a telephone cable.  I used to run a Bulletin Board System so that my students could dial in during the evenings to ask questions and upload assignments.  That required the installation of a second phone line to the house.  In my den, my computer was connected to a modem which was connected to that phone line and sat there waiting for someone to call.

When we did the installation of that phone line, we put a second outlet in the rec room.   That would allow me to use the phone line to connect to the internet from my chair and my portable computer.  It wasn’t a laptop by today’s standards – it was a Radio Shack Model 100 with just a few lines of display.  That’s OK because it connected at 300 baud so it wasn’t difficult to keep up.  But, to connect, I had to have this long telephone cord which ran across the diagonal of the rec room from the outlet to my chair.  Needless to say, with a dog and little children, it was a tripping hazard.

And so began my love/hate affair with computer cables.

I’ve worked with many different cable technologies since then.

Coaxial

The first concept of networking for me was with the Icon computer system that was supplied to the school via the GEMS program.  It featured one fileserver and three computer workstations that were daisy chained to each other using coaxial cable.  Even when we added a couple of computers later, the throughput was actually pretty impressive.  At the back of each workstations, you just had to have a “T” connector so that there was an option for the data to go to the computer or to pass through to the next computer.  The key to success was to ensure that the last computer had a terminator.  That was a signal to the network that it had reached the end of the line.  It was also a favourite piece to “go missing” and would bring the network to its knees.  This savvy teacher always kept an extra one in his pocket.  For my sharpest of students, working in a network like this was their first opportunity to write code to allow one computer user to talk to another computer user.  By today’s standards, it was pretty primitive, but hey – these kids were texting before texting became a thing.  But the networking design had limitations in terms of distance, and the insulated cables were expensive.  Eventually, it went away.

Baseband

When we got in the business of replacing typewriters with computers and keyboards, there had to be a way to largely replicate things the way that they always had been done.  i.e. the output had to go to paper.  There’s no way that we were about to buy a printer for each computer but fortunately the technology was there so that we didn’t have to.  It was possible to connect a printer (our printer of choice was a Panasonic 1091) to a fileserver.  Each computer would log into the fileserver and, properly configured, you could create your document and then send it to the printer.  Just like at university getting computer programming output, this led to long lineups at the printer and longer lineups in the printer queue on the server.  Why?  Well, if you sent your document to the printer and it didn’t print immediately, the common solution was to send it again and again!  It was a tedious process which we attempted to solve by adding additional printers (which one did you send it to?) and then, thankfully, a laser printer.  The technique of networking all of this was key.  The affordable solution was a technology called baseband.  Our implementation required a hub and then telephone-like cables with RJ11 connectors.  The design was pretty straight forward with a single cable from each computer to the hub.  It wasn’t terribly fast at 2MB but got the job done.

Token Ring

This was one of the upgrades that we explored as a more reliable, faster solution to Baseband.  Between Baseband and Token Ring suggestions, it wasn’t too difficult to recognize that our vendor was IBM.  Token Ring was promoted as being the most reliable networking available on the market at the time.  Connections were available at 4/16MB but the big deal was that traffic on the network wasn’t going to be a limiting factor.  Instead of fighting for bandwidth, the network just threw tokens around and the appropriate network device just grabbed the token that was intended for it.  Using this technology, it was possible to network an entire school with “drops” in every classroom.  We even visited a number of schools to see it in action.  It was quite impressive, fast, and seemed very reliable.  We were told that it was the technology that many ATM machines used because they couldn’t afford to ever be down.  The drawback was the cost.  The networking cards and the cables were of the highest quality of the time, insulated, very thick – so thick in fact, that they couldn’t handle 90 degree turns all that well.  I seem to remember that we did install a couple of networks where things had to be totally reliable but it never made it to the classroom within our district.

Ethernet

So, what to turn to if Token Ring was out of the game?  We investigated Ethernet and it made a great solution.  It was affordable, supportable by just about everyone and it provided the solution for wiring an entire school and out the door to a wide area network.  In the beginning, we actually ran with a couple of different implementations within the same building.  For permanent lab settings, we were able to daisy chain the machines and for that single computer in the classroom, you could pull a drop with nicely finished box attached to the wall.  I learned so much with this. First of all, there was a limitation in length of an Ethernet cable so location of wiring closet(s) became an art to keep costs to a minimum.  With a cable crimper and a spool of Ethernet cable, anyone could manufacture their own shorter cable.  (After practice, of course.  RJ45 connectors were bought in bulk)  Speeds went through the roof.  Top speeds of 100MB made accessing things so quickly.  Additional devices can be outfitted or purchased with Ethernet connections and are just hung on the network.

Running cables around takes you into interesting places at home or in school.  But not as interesting as Google and other companies.

So, how does this fit in with the original premise of this post?

The world has gone wireless.  Yay!  No more hassles.  Just get close enough to be in range of the wireless access point and you’re connected.  No more cables.

Or so they’d have you believe.

This has got to be one of the biggest lies of the technical age.  As I look around here, I seem to see more wires than ever.  It’s just that they’re not network wires. I still do have an Ethernet connection to my desktop computer because I’m too lazy to disconnect it.  Other than that, everything else is connected wirelessly.  Has this reduced the number of wires?  Somehow, I don’t think so.  It’s just that, instead of network wires, I have this big collection of USB and other cables to connect to the computer that is connected wirelessly.

And there’s different standards there too.  2.4GHz,5.0GHz, and then all the security to keep your wireless connection secure from mooching neighbours.

Sigh.

We’re not there yet.

What are your thoughts for this Sunday morning?

  • How many wired network environments have you ever worked or learned in?
  • Do you know how to use a cable crimper?
  • Can you print from your wireless device to a printer?
  • When you have company, is the first question “What’s the password to the wireless?”
  • What was your first internet connection?  Mine was ENOREO that gave me the login “dougpete”.

Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

Check out the entire collection of Sunday morning memories here. And, if you’re so inclined, through in a suggestion in the Padlet.

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2 thoughts on “Whatever happened to …

  1. Prior to ICONS with coax, I had a “network” of Commodore PETs. It was a ribbon cable daisy chained to a device connected to IEEE that went to a controller connected to dual floppy drive and a printer. The equipment was “borrowed” from Althouse courtesy of John Walsh. When our first file server and 3 ICONS arrived they went into the computer lab that had 15 PETs in their own network. Then we got 15 Commodore PC computers that used ArtiSoft as the network software and I don’t recall how they were networked. Finally we had Ethernet with hubs in various rooms / locations throughout the entire school using Novell.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I set up a couple of coax based networks. The people who would clean the labs seemed to think they pulled out rather than unscrewed. Needless to say debugging the network meant finding the cables that were no longer quite right. Not fun.

    While I have Wi-Fi at home I also have some wired connections. They are faster and sometimes (video conferencing) that is important. I crawled through the crawl space under my addition and drilled a hole in the floor to run a cable from the network hub to where my wife and I have our computers. If I were building a house today I would have it wired for networking during construction. Sometimes you really want that wire.

    Plus with more and more devices using the Wi-Fi (two phones, two computers, the Amazon Fire Stick, network sensors around the house and soon a camera keeping an eye on the front door) the wi-fi can get overloaded.

    Like

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