The LAN is 30

The idea behind ARCnet - the first LAN - came to an engineer while he was eating a meatball sandwich.

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LAN technology recently passed a milestone - it's been around for 30 years, some of them tumultuous. But while the LAN seems ubiquitous now, there are those who think its future may be more troubled than its past.

"Comparing the present environment to our original vision, the temptation is huge to say that we foresaw all this," commented Bob Metcalfe, one of the inventors of Ethernet (by far the best-selling LAN protocol) and now a general partner at Polaris Venture Partners. "But I will resist and say, 'Duh, wow, look what happened.'"

Ethernet, he explained, was developed as part of a project at the Xerox Palo Alto Research Centre (PARC) in the early 1970s that pioneered the idea of desktop personal computers connected to one another and to laser printers. The original network speed was just under 3Mbit/s, gated by the processor of the Alto computer that PARC developed for the project, he added.

Metcalfe recalled that about 100 nodes were operational by the time a groundbreaking technical paper that he co-wrote describing Ethernet appeared in the July 1976 "Communications of the ACM".

First commercial LAN

But that's where the story gets tumultuous because the 30-year milestone doesn't refer to the birth of Ethernet but to the first commercial installation of a LAN, which took place in December 1977 at Chase Manhattan Bank in New York. And it was not an Ethernet, but a network called ARC (Attached Resource Computer or, generically, ARCnet) from now-defunct Datapoint Corp.

"It was impressive in that it was something that people were not even thinking about doing," said analyst Amy Wohl, head of Wohl Associates, recalling her first glimpse of an ARCnet at Datapoint headquarters shortly after the 1977 announcement. "Previously, you needed a dedicated line to get a networking connection, and it was expensive and hard to implement."

Harry Pyle, then at Datapoint and now a principal software design engineer at Microsoft, recalled that Datapoint sold desktop machines running multiple data-entry terminals. Supporting additional terminals required bigger machines, and he recalled eating a meatball sandwich at an Italian restaurant when a field engineer said his customer wanted more terminals immediately - leading to a train of thought that sparked the development of ARCnet.

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