I’ve mentioned in the past how my first job in IT (starting in 1995) was as a “systems administrator” for a small company in Marin County, California. The company designed and built museum exhibits, and its team of around 60 employees was split between fabricators, who built the exhibits, and office workers. Some of the office workers did administrative work, while others were designers. So, I was managing a network of around 30 computers, all Macs.
When I got to the company, the computers were networked using LocalTalk, a LAN technology from Apple, and specifically the PhoneNet variation. PhoneNet was a product from Farallon Networks which enabled you to send the LocalTalk signal down a single pair of ordinary telephone wire. The common practice was to use an extra pair of phone wires in the same cable that carried the user’s phone line. In my first Netstalgia piece, I mentioned that my PhoneNet network was entirely passive, and ran into a lot of challenges as a result.
PhoneNet was also slow, and our designers had to transfer large files. I decided to set up a separate Ethernet network for them. All I knew about Ethernet was that it was faster, and that the higher-end PowerPC’s used by the designers supported it. These computers had an AAUI port, a modification of the AUI port commonly in use for Ethernet connectivity at the time. An AUI port required a transceiver to connect it to the Ethernet network. Why? Because we had Thicknet and Thinnet coaxial Ethernet, 10Base-T twisted pair and fiber optic Ethernet as well. The universal AUI port (and Apple’s AAUI equivalent) gave you a choice of medium.
I didn’t really know how to make this work, and Google was not available at the time. I had heard that you needed a “hub”, but I wasn’t sure exactly why or what the hub did. The MacWarehouse catalogs I used to receive at the time advertised a product called an Etherwave, from the same company that made the PhoneNet transceiver. The Etherwave allowed daisy-chaining of a twisted-pair Ethernet network. I don’t know why, but this seemed easier and cheaper to me that buying a hub. It was neither.
I bought a bunch of Etherwave adapters, got a ladder, and spend a night running Cat 3 cable in the suspended ceiling, and crimping RJ45 cubes. Finally, I daisy chained everything together, and switched the computers to the new Ethernet network. It worked very well–file transfers were screaming!
The designers loved it, but there was a flaw. The Ethernet network was not connected at all to the LocalTalk network. The LocalTalk network was where email, printing, and many other services resided. Their computers had connections to both, but they had to go to a control panel and switch between one or the other. That meant, if they wanted to do a file transfer, the two designers would have to shout to each other to switch networks, at which point they could do it peer-to-peer.
There was another problem. Apple’s networking software, called OpenTransport, was notoriously buggy. The switches between Ethernet and LocalTalk resulted in frequent crashes and reboots. The initial thrill was wearing off.
I searched through catalogs and primitive websites looking for a solution. I learned that I could buy a device called a router to connect the Ethernet and LocalTalk into a single unified network. I desperately looked for the cheapest one. My go-to vendor, Farallon, made a router but it was way too expensive. Finally, I found a cheap router called a PathFinder manufactured by Dayna systems.
I went to my boss, the VP of operations. I showed her the price (maybe $800?) and she balked. This company ran a tight ship, and she said we couldn’t afford it.
I went back to our head designer and asked her to keep a post-in on her computer for a day, with a tally mark each time she had to reboot due to the Ethernet to LocalTalk switching. Then we timed how long it took her to reboot. I went back to my boss and showed her how much time was being lost each day to a single designer. Her left hand flew over her the buttons on the calculator on her desk, then she looked up at me. “Buy the router,” she said.
The PathFinder did indeed fix the problem. And so my first Ethernet network, as well as my first experience configuring a router, came at a company in 1995 with 30 Macs, and I’ve spent decades working with both technologies since those days.