My First Home Network

  • The year was 1997 and I lived in Greece, New York with two roommates (one software developer and one salesman) and in that era, as odd as it sounds today, having a home network was completely unheard of. It was mostly common to have a computer at home by that point but nowhere near ubiquitous. Out of the three of us, we only owned one computer (mine) and it was already two or three years old at the time that we got the apartment. Neither of my roommates had ever owned a computer of their own at that point and neither would own one of their own until after we had moved out of that apartment in 2000. Shocking today that anyone would not own a computer at home or have a complete network at home but amazingly, just fourteen years ago, household computing was only just starting to catch on, broadband was still rare and there were no really good operating system options for personal computing yet - the PC world was still very much in flux.

    My one computer was a Digital Starion Pentium 75MHz running Windows 3.11 with 8MB of RAM and a 1GB hard drive and a 1x CD-ROM drive, all quite amazing for early 1995 when I purchased it for $5,000 USD. That was only barely less than a small car would have cost at that time and was nearly ten times what I had actually paid for my first car just a few years before. It was far from being an amazing machine. And the three of us had to share it. We did not have Internet access for the first while, it took nearly six months before the phone company could even figure out how to deliver us a POTS line, even though we were in a major city, because of technical problems with another line they had accidentally installed (worthy of another story on its own.) So, in a way, you could call that a six month POTS outage - for those people who think that POTS never fail, I've had few occasions that they have actually worked.

    The decision to build a network at home in those days was not at all obvious. None of us had ever heard of anyone doing such a thing and acquiring computers, networking equipment and cabling was not trivial. Our budget was low and none of us had experience, at home, educationally or in businesses, where we had even worked on networks. We were really working blindly. Two of us had some experience working on networked machines but they were large scale UNIX servers with dumb terminals and the only network connection was the WAN link - so hundreds of users used a single server and there was no LAN. Even in businesses LANs were a rarity at this point.

    The first piece of gear needed was a hub. Switches were not around yet. A small Bay Networks (later known as Netgear) 10Mb/s Ethernet hub was the first equipment purchased and the only equipment that was purchased new. 10Mb/s was considered quite fast then, even without the advantage of switching. In 1997 it was not yet clear that Ethernet was going to be the winning standard and multiple LAN types were commonly available such as Token Ring. TCP/IP networking had not won the network battle yet and IPX/SPX and NetBEUI were both fighting for a place too. Today it is hard to believe that TCP/IP and fully switched Ethernet were not the only games in town, but just seventeen years ago one was fighting for dominance and the other effectively did not yet exist. We were stuck with classic Ethernet with all of its collisions and capacity problems.

    We needed more to really get some value out of the network. The next stop was a used computer store where three old Compaq commercial computers were purchased, two 486 machines and one 386SX. Talk about old, but this was all that we could afford. We set up a large metal table in our basement (just a small, unfinished, underground room) and put the three computers on it, each with an ancient thirteen or fifteen inch CRT. Caldera OpenLinux 1.3 was installed on those three machines. No GUI, just consoles. The hub was affixed to the basement wall just above that long desk to make the cables short for those three machines. The Pentium 75 machine was moved to the kitchen and sat on the counter and a single, long CAT3 (that was all we had then) was wrapped up the stairway and through the house to get to it.

    On one of the 486 machines CircleMUD was installed and up to four people could plug in and play a MUD in the house, all networked. There was no Internet yet, but friends would come by and everyone loved to play, it was pretty much unheard of to play a networked game at this time. It was a lot of fun.

    When we finally got a phone line, we had no money for good Internet access, if any even existed, but at that time, free Internet from AltaVista was available through the streaming of ads. So we went with that. Dial up Internet capped at 33Kb/s with ads streaming across the connection. It was painful but we were the first people that we knew with Internet access at home. We all worked different shifts so sharing one "real" computer was not a big deal.

    With only a hub and some computers, there was no way to share Internet access. Routers were not available for home use then, it would have been many thousands of dollars for a business class Cisco or something similar, no other option really. The idea of multiple computers in a home being online was so rare that there was no accommodation for it.

    During this era I was always acquiring new gear from one place or another and at one point I managed to get a Proliant servers that had four processors. This was an ancient, skinny but massive tower unit. And a Pentium Pro desktop was acquired onto which I installed Windows NT4 Server and Proxy Server 2. This was during my MCSE certification era. The server was used as my main NT 4 PDC. So we had two servers. A modem was added to the Pentium Pro unit and it actually worked with Alta Vista. Better still, because Alta Vista didn't intend to work with NT4 it actually worked better than expected. Instead of showing ads, the ads would die after the first hour freeing up bandwidth. And instead of dropping the call after the ads stopped, the call would stay connected for seven days at a time! So we effectively had improved Internet than you could normally get by a significant amount. We were able to use the routing features of NT4 to share the connection with the house.

    But even better still, because we were running MS Proxy Server 2 (later ISA server) on there, we had the option of turning on caching which, in the era of few websites, no significant search engine and static content, was nearly perfect. We turned on aggressive caching and set it to use the entire available space on the hard drive. The cache server would run all day and all night going to every website that we would visit and updating the cache while we were not using the network. Anytime that we wanted to them use a website to check the news or whatever, instead of waiting on a 33Kb/s dial up connection we would get a 10Mb/s connection and if anyone in the house visited a site and then told someone else to go to that same site - of course that was already cached. It was brilliant. We had the equivalent performance of a broadband connection, for free, years before broadband or persistent connections were even in the public consciousness.

    By the end of that apartment, we had about seven computers on the network including a Pentium II 350 running Windows 98, two NT 4 servers and several Linux machines. It was an amazing network that was far ahead of its time and provided a really great education. Some of the network would be carried on to the next two houses in which I lived. Quickly the hub was replaced with a much larger switch and the next house had four roommates and one after than had six allowing for a far larger and more advanced network. Eventually we had everyone on the domain and several servers providing different kinds of content in the house. It was an ever evolving system.

    I have to credit that home network with a lot of my education during that era. I had been primarily a software designer and building and maintaining a home network that far surpassed anything that a normal SMB had even heard of at the time taught me a lot. A lot of systems (Windows NT, Windows 98, Linux, etc.) and a lot about networking (TCP/IP, SPX/IPX, NetBEUI, Ethernet.) And it taught me about security. It helped me to get my MCSE+I, Network+, Server+ and other certs and was a major component is shifting my career into the world of IT.

  • In late 1995 I moved into an efficiency apartment in St Louis, Missouri to be close to work. It happened to be across the street from a CO. My PC was a 486 DX2 80 rocking Windows 3.11 for workgroups. I bought a 56k modem shortly after I moved in and because my line was so clean and short, I actually got rock solid 56k performance to my preferred BBS. In fact for the first few months I had to manually change the baud rate to something less than 48k or I would continually get disconnected after a random time.

    In 1996 I bought a Pentium with MMX to replace my 486 and installed Windows 95 for the first time at home.

    In 1998 I moved in to a duplex in a tiny town called Mitchell on the Illinois side of the St. Louis region with a friend that was a manager at a Dominos, I was an alarm installer at the time, but specialized in access control systems. These systems were all computer controlled. With one of the the higher end systems actually requiring a NT 4 Server and PDC to run on. I was basically installing a second network inside these larger company networks. When I moved into the duplex I set up my old 486 for my friend and we had 2 phone lines installed so we could get online at the same time and play Starcraft against people on BattleNet. After about 2 months I got lucky and was given another old 486 the came out of a facility along with a box of old software. In that box was a copy of NT3,5. I immediately set that up and then hooked up both modems to it and installed some routing software of some kind (really sad that I cannot recall what it was). So I was shotgunning dual 56k modems AND playing side by side with my friend. The people we played against in Starcraft did not stand a chance against us.
    When we were not playing, I was on the newsgroups, well you know what those were for. Again, shotgunning 56k modems kicked ass.

    In 1999 our house was accepted into the beta test for Charter's new cable modem service. The poor cable installer had no clue what he was looking at when he walked into our place. By that time I had expanded our network to have the 486 in the entertainment center connected to the stereo receiver and TV via a tuner card so we could have my MP3 collection blasting. My PC was updated to a PII and my old PC was now my friends PC.

    All of this got me absolutely nothing other than networking skills that I would not use again for years and a deeper understanding of computers that I would make use of in 2001 to get off the DSL helpdesk at AT&T (then SBC) and into a special group doing analysis.

  • Well, in 1998 I started primary school (elementary in US).
    Does that count? 🙂

  • @lillucia said:

    Well, in 1998 I started primary school (elementary in US).
    Does that count? 🙂

    Wow, lol. Now I feel old.

  • Scott, I assume that you had your first computer long before 1997? Did you start in 1997 because that's when you made a home network first?

  • @Dashrender said:

    Scott, I assume that you had your first computer long before 1997? Did you start in 1997 because that's when you made a home network first?

    Started programming in 1985. Got my first computer at home in 1987, started interning in 1989. First serious job offer in 1993. Got my first job in software development in 1994 and my first job in UNIX administration later in 1994. The computer that i used in the 1997 network was purchased in 1994 or 1995.

  • I fell in love with computers in 1979, but did not get regular access to one until 1984. It was a very sad time until 1987 when I had one to myself full time.

  • I am sitting here remembering that I got [email protected] cable connection in Dallas circa 1999. I had 2 Windows 98 PCs and I vaguely remember having a hub (not a switch). A friend that was a tech with Network Associates helped me setup our system. I don't remember getting a router until 2001. I also can't remember how it was setup. I am pretty sure we didn't use ICS either.

  • My friend got @home first. It took him about 4 months to convince me and the rest of our department to pony up the $35/month to pay for the 1-2 mb connection. Like TB I don't recall having a router at home until the early 2000's, but I did have a server setup at home in 2001.

  • I do remember how much faster it was to download, ah...Napster...yeah...I even downloaded movies back and my wife and I watched the 17" screen while in bed. As consumers we were considered pretty techie by others with their smaller screens, slower PCs and dial-up.

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