Computer networking is central to today’s constant evolution of the information technology (IT) landscape. Network and communication technologies have been influential in this rise. Computer networking makes the interconnection of endpoints and devices possible on local area networks (LANs) or wide area networks (WANs). This enables the interaction, communication, and sharing of resources between businesses, service providers, and consumers.
To understand how networking became as essential as it is today, it is important to study its origins. The vastness of computer networking makes it a challenge to pinpoint in terms of its exact origins. However, since the late 1950s, the impact of networks on tech evolution has become increasingly important.
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Networking in the 1960s
The definite beginnings of computer networking can be traced back to the 1960s. In particular, the beginning of the United States Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) in 1969 was the most influential event of this decade. Furthermore, the 1960s involved key events such as the launch of Telstar 1 in 1962 and the introduction of the first commercial touch-tone phone in 1962.
This decade also involved the publication of the first request for comments (RFC) document. The document defined and provided information about computer communication network procedures and network protocols. As a result of this RFC document, the Network Control Protocol (NCP) was specified. This protocol became ARPANET’s first transport protocol.
Additionally, IBM’s System/360 mainframe computing environment was introduced in 1964.
The United States Advanced Research Projects Agency Network was the network that provided the foundations of the internet. A number of the network protocols in use today were first developed for ARPANET. First used in 1969, it became the first public packet-switched computer network, with its major purposes revolving around academia and research.
In 1969, the UNIX operating system was developed by Bell Laboratories. This is noteworthy, as the operating system is commonly used in enterprise networking environments today. This was the first operating system written entirely in the C programming language. Its popularity rose in the 1970s in academic computing environments and enabled multiple users to simultaneously gain access to the system and run their programs.
However, its widespread deployment was not until the mid-1970s. A PDP-11 minicomputer with dumb terminals made up a basic UNIX system.
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Character encoding systems
As the standards for computer networking started to evolve during this decade, IBM introduced extended binary coded decimal interchange code (EBCDIC), which was the first 8-bit character encoding system. The American Standard Code for Information Interchange (ASCII) was introduced a year later to compete with EBCDIC.
The American National Standards Institute formally standardized ASCII in 1968. Even though ASCII was 7-bit, it edged out EBCDIC. ASCII ended up being widened to all computer and networking technologies.
Networking in the 1970s
The 1970s introduced the most popular LAN technology of today: Ethernet.
Through Xerox’s research laboratory, Ethernet came about in 1973. The Xerox networking system originally operated at 2.94 Mbps. However, it was experimental thus it was not implemented for commercial use.
In 1979 the DIX consortium, constituting Digital Equipment Corporation, Intel, and Xerox, was formed. It put in place the specification for standard 10Mbps Ethernet that was published in 1980.
ARPANET saw rapid growth in the 1970s, as it proved attractive to many universities and government computers. The network was declared operational in 1975 and was used to further communications technology. At this point, satellite links enabled computers from other countries to be added to ARPANET. Additionally, the first email was sent over ARPANET in 1971.
Transmission Control Protocol (TCP)
The popularity of ARPANET influenced the rise of many packet-based networks. However, these networks were unable to communicate with each other. They needed standardized equipment to communicate. TCP/IP was developed on ARPANET to enable communication between different networks. It first came into operation in 1977.
By enabling the interconnection of different networks, TCP/IP cemented itself as the foundational technology of the internet.
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Networking in the 1980s
During this decade, the growth of client-server architectures continued at the expense of mainframe computing.
ARPANET was partitioned into two networks in 1983 to distinguish between civilian and military use. However, other networks gained dominance in the mid-1980s, thus leading to a decline in the importance of ARPANET. The backbone of the internet shifted from ARPANET to the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) in 1986.
The rise of commercial networks and other network providers contributed to the shutting down of ARPANET in 1989 and its ultimate decommissioning in 1990.
The National Science Foundation Network was more capable than ARPANET as the cornerstone for the commercial public internet. It handled the bulk of internet traffic after going online in 1986. The focus of NSFNET was to provide a network strictly for academic research and not for any form of private business activity.
It was, however, divided into a for-profit and not-for-profit network to enable the network to develop commercially in the early 1990s.
Evolution of Ethernet
In the 1980s, the evolution and standardization of Ethernet was the greatest development in LAN networking. Project 802 by IEEE was started to create a unified standard for all LANs. The initiative was divided into various groups, with the one focusing on Ethernet labeled as 802.3. In 1983, the 802.3 group released IEEE 802.3 10Base5 Ethernet, which was the first available Ethernet variant that was commercially available. It was known as thicknet, as it used thick coaxial cables.
The 10Base2 Ethernet standard was released in 1985. It was known as Thinnet, as it involved the use of thin coaxial cables.
Network File System (NFS)
The Network File System was developed in 1985 and drove up the demand for Ethernet. This is because NFS led to the rapid increase in diskless UNIX workstations with built-in Ethernet interfaces. NFS played a part in cementing the dominance of UNIX in academic and professional computing environments in the 1980s.
Token Ring Topology
IBM submitted its Token Ring Topology technology to IEEE in 1982, but it was not standardized until 1984. In 1985 the technology was introduced as an alternative to Ethernet.
Networking in the 1990s to Today
Ethernet continued dominance in LAN technologies in the 1990s, as it continued to eclipse its alternatives.
With computer networks facing rapid growth at the time, Ethernet of greater speeds was needed to satisfy the needs of bandwidth-hungry applications. As a result, the first full-duplex Ethernet with speeds of 20Mbps was introduced in 1992. A standard full-duplex Ethernet was in the works since 1995 and was finished in 1997.
In 1992, an Ethernet bus known as the Grand Junction Networks commercial Ethernet bus was introduced. It achieved speeds of 100Mbps. This advancement drove the 802.3 group to introduce the 802u 100BaseT Fast Ethernet standard. The standard transmitted data at 100Mbps over fiber-optic and twisted-pair cables.
After the 100BaseT Fast Ethernet standard, sights were set on Gigabit Ethernet, which is the 1,000Mbps Ethernet version. It came into use in 1999, and due to its considerable improvement in speed in comparison to Fast Ethernet, it replaced Ethernet in wired local networks.
Voice over IP (VoIP) gained prominence as vendors increasingly promised businesses massive savings through the routing of voice telephone traffic via IP networks in the late 1990s. However, the concept of VoIP started around 1995, with the potential of transmission of voice data packets over IP as opposed to using standard telephone.
1997 saw the introduction of the first 802.11 Wi-Fi standard. It provided speeds of up to 2Mbps. It was made official in 1999, with the capability to reach transmission speeds of 25Mbps and used the 5GHz frequency band.
Computer Networking Today
Since the demands for Wi-Fi and Ethernet continued to increase over the years, networking technology has continued to evolve. Today, networking is defined by the need for low-latency and high-bandwidth network technologies.
The most prominent technologies associated with networking today include 5G and Wi-Fi 6, augmented reality, virtual reality, machine learning, artificial intelligence, cloud computing, the Internet of Things, software-defined wide area networking, and more.