20 May 2008

The inexorable march of Ethernet

This, my first blog for NetEvents TV, is going to be a bit of a personal journey so please bear with me.

An IT journalist for over 20 years, communications has always been a fascinating topic. There's so much to go wrong it remains a source of amazement that it all works.

So little time ago, the loading of a network stack filled the PC's memory to the point where there was just enough room to run a stripped down word processor and that was it. Everything was manual. You had to tweak the various elements that talked to the hardware, the bit in the middle known as a shim, and then hope and pray that your application would tolerate the existence of a location that wasn't on the local machine. If not, it was game over, and the machine would just freeze, and it was time for the BRS - or big red switch.

And each vendor had their own way of doing things. Hoping that Novell's stack would talk to IBM's or DEC's was pushing your luck. Assuming, that is, that the thick yellow, 10Base5 Ethernet cable or, later, the thinner, 10 Base2 BNC cable hadn't been unplugged by someone who didn't realise that doing so would bring down the entire network.

And wireless connectivity was a black art, of use only to those who absolutely had to have it, such as people who work in warehouses and hospitals. For the rest of us, it was way too arcane and expensive.

Fast forward to 2008 and things could hardly be more different. Broadly speaking, networking just works. You plug in the cable or fire up the Wi-Fi and it connects.

Everything is standardised, whether you're using a phone, a laptop running Linux, a PC or a Mac. It's taken some doing but the extent to which a TCP/IP stack is now just a TCP/IP stack as opposed to being a product to which vendors insist on adding value by making it non-standard are - thankfully - long gone.

Where am I going with this? It's simply a paean of praise for those who dragged the technology to the point where it is today: among them are the engineers who did the hard work of making it so, the users who insisted with their wallets that vendors interoperate, and the standards bodies who created the detail that makes the interconnected world we now inhabit possible. And there's a big debate going on as to whether it ought to be the same stuff that connects the Earth to future space missions too.

So when you click on a link that connects you halfway across the globe to a server that contains the info you want, think for a second about the magic that makes it work -- and, if your character allows it, marvel at the technology.

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