A Brief History of Network Technology

A Brief History of Network Technology

Written by Kat Cox, Technology Writer

Computer networking is one of the greatest breakthroughs of our age. Well before the Internet took over our daily lives, engineers and scientists worked to connect computers to each other. The work they did established our current state of networking. If you’re new to network cables, it’s not a bad idea to review the history of network technology to understand how we got to where we are now.

The First Computer Network is Born

The history of modern computer networking technology goes back to 1969, when ARPANET (Advanced Research Projects Agency Network) became the first connected computer network. It implemented the TCP/IP protocol suite, which later became the Internet. ARPANET was developed by the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA), a subset of the US Department of Defense. Why did the DoD need to develop networked computers? The Cold War, of course! The goal of ARPANET was to keep lines of communication open if the USA and the USSR decided to exchange nuclear devices.

ARPANET revolutionized communications by using packet-switching instead of direct connections. Data that is communicated through a packet-switching system is formatted into packets with an address of the destination machine, and then sent onto the network and picked up by the next machine. The address in the protocol tells the machine where to send the packet. This way, the information will reach its intended destination, even if there isn’t a direct connection between the two machines.

While it changed the need for there to be direct connections between machines to communicate, the ARPANET system still relied on phone lines. It was originally a four-node network between university computers at Stanford, the University of Utah, UCLA, and UCSB, but expanded to 40 machines in 1972.

Attached Resource Computer NETwork (ARCNET)

In 1986, Datapoint Corporation developed ARCNET, a communications protocol for local area networks (LANs). It was the first widely available networking system and was used widely in the 1980s for office automation. Unlike other computer systems that required all networked computers to be homogenous, ARCNET was the first solution that did not make assumptions about why types of computer networking technology would be connected. ARCNET speed was limited to 2.5 Mbit/s, and while it was popular during its reign, it was less reliable and less flexible than other systems, particularly Ethernet.

Token Ring and Network Topology

Token Ring Network Example

Token Ring Network Example

In the 1980s, token ring protocols became more popular, mostly as a response from IBM to the openness of the new Ethernet protocol. This local area network (LAN) set-up connects all the computers in a ring or star wherein data is passed from host to host. This protocol prevents collisions of information packets on a network by ensuring that only a host that holds a token can send data, and that tokens are only released when data receipt is confirmed.

IBM’s Token Ring technology was launched in October, 1985 and ran at 4 Mbit/s. The star-wired physical topology was run over shielded twisted-pair cabling, and became the basis for the ANSI/IEE standard 802.5. Eventually a 16 Mbit/s Token Ring was standardized, and increased to 100 Mbit/s just near the end of its existence. Many scientists argued that token ring LANs were better than Ethernet, which had recently been developed. However, Ethernet provided more cost effective methods for networking, which helped make commercial token ring systems virtually non-existent by the 2000s.

Fiber Distributed Data Interface

The fiber distributed data interface (FDDI) uses optical fiber to convey data transmission in a LAN. It offered speeds of up to 100 Mbit/s, blowing ARCNET out of the water. FDDI is a ring-based token network, but uses a protocol derived from the IEEE 802.4 token bus timed token protocol as opposed to the IEEE 802.5 protocol. The data network technology can also cover a large range, extending up to 120 miles.

FDDI and its later cousin made of copper, CDDI, were popular in the 1990s, when Ethernet was still young and could only offer 10 Mbit/s. But most FDDI systems have been completely replaced by Ethernet since the introduction of the faster and less expensive Gigabit Ethernet in 1998.

The Rise of the Ethernet

Ethernet was developed in 1973 by Bob Metcalfe at Xerox PARC, and it wasn’t patented until 1975. The open Ethernet standard took another five years, and was standardized in 1983 as IEEE 802.3. The first Ethernet system used coaxial cable as a shared medium, and started out with speeds of 2.94 Mbit/s. Over time, Ethernet has moved on to twisted pair or fiber optic links as well as switches, allowing it to increase in speed, which currently stands at a blazing 40 Gb/s.

Ethernet offered a less expensive alternative to many previous networking standards, especially as it adapted to new cable types like twisted pair and fiber optic cabling. Other standards were limited to the types of cable they could use. Because Ethernet operated on an open-source protocol as opposed to a proprietary one, it was also easier to implement. Ethernet is now relatively ubiquitous, and is considered one of the main components of the Internet as we know it.

Using Ethernet Cables Now

Because Ethernet is a protocol and not a type of cable, there are many different kinds of Ethernet cables available. You might choose a fiber optic version for networking over a long distance. If you require power over Ethernet (PoE) then copper is required. Read more about fiber optic vs copper here. You may opt for Cat6 cable vs Cat5e for better speeds, or vice versa for price reasons.

Now that you have a brief history of network technology under your belt, trueCable has the Ethernet cable and expertise to help you pick the right set up for your network, whether it’s at home or the office. Contact us today for more information!


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