internet

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The first company where I worked as a “systems administrator” had no Internet connectivity at all when I started.  By the time I left, I had installed an analog phone line which was shared amongst several users with modems for dial-up service.  The connectivity options in 1995 were limited, and very expensive.  Our company operated on a shoestring budget and could not afford the costly dedicated service offerings from our ISP.

When I moved to a “consulting” company, I finally had the opportunity to work with real dedicated Internet service.  For the customers I worked with, our main options were two:  ISDN and T1 lines.

ISDN stood for Integrated Services Digital Network.  It came in two major flavors, but we exclusively used the lower-end Basic Rate Interface (BRI).  ISDN was a digital phone line, and like its analog counterpart required dialing a phone number.  The BRI had two data channels which were 64 Kbps each, but we usually ran them together for a combined 128 Kbps.  At the time, this was quite speedy, more than double the speed of the modems we had, and our smaller customers loved ISDN.  Because it was a dial-up technology, however, per minute rates applied.  This meant the line would time out and disconnect periodically to save costs.  When it was down and an outbound packet arrived at the router with the ISDN interface, the router would dial up the SP again.  The connection time was much faster than analog modems, but it still added latency which was annoying.

I don’t know if other regions did it, but we had a local hack to get around this.  Understanding the hack requires a little background on the phone systems of the time.  Two kinds of business phone systems were typically in use:  PBXs and key systems.  With a key system, every phone had an extension number, but no direct dial into it.  If you wanted to speak to the person at extension 302, you dialed the main phone number for the business, and either asked the receptionist to connect you, or else an automated system did it for you.  For outbound dialing, the user would either lift the handset and select an unused line from the pool of lines available, or perhaps dial 9 for the key system to connect them to the next available line.  PBXs, on the other hand, were used by large companies, gave each user their own phone line and allowed inter-office extension-to-extension calling, as well as direct dial from the outside world.  If my extension was 3202, I would have a direct dial phone number of, say, 415-555-3202.

Some companies instead opted for the phone company to do their internal switching.  This was known as a Centrex service.  The phone company provided hard wired analog phone lines to the customer, but enabled extension-to-extension direct dial.  Thus, if I was at extension 3202 and I needed to dial extension 3203, I could pick up the phone and just dial the four digits.  The phone company took care of routing it.

What does this have to do with ISDN?  We used to order Centrex service for our customers in the same Centrex group as their ISP. Thus, the customer’s ISDN line became an “extension” of the ISP’s Centrex group.  Not only could the customer then dial the ISP with four digits (not a big deal when the router is doing the dialing), but there were no toll charges on Centrex lines.  We used to nail the line up so it would never disconnect, and if it did for an reason, it would auto-redial.  And then we had dedicated Internet service on a dial-up line!

T1’s (E1’s elsewhere) were 1.544 Mbps, blazing fast at the time.  Unlike the single-pair ISDN line, T1’s were delivered on four wires, two for TX and two for RX.  I won’t get into the details of line coding on T1’s, which we all studied as junior network engineers.  T1 lines were truly dedicated, and provided a point-to-point connection from customer to ISP.  They were distance-priced, but I worked in San Francisco which is a small city, so it wasn’t usually a factor.  Because 1.544 Mbps was expensive for some customers, we had the option of ordering fractional T1s, fewer channels at a slower speed, but still faster than ISDN.  In the early days we had to terminate the T1 on an external CSU/DSU device, and then run a serial cable to the router, but eventually the CSU/DSU came integrated on the router interface card.

When I worked at the San Francisco Chronicle, we were providing Internet service via a T1 line terminating on a 2500-series router.  (The same one disabled by paint roller in this story.)  1000 users on a single T1 was painfully slow, and we made the decision to upgrade to a DS3 (T3) which ran at 45Mbps.  The interface for DS3 used two BNC coax connections.  I remember being amazed that the phone company could deliver service over coax, but it turns out that service into the building used fiber optics.  Inside the building we ran coax.  The run of coax from the basement to our 2nd floor data center was expensive, but the result was phenomenal.  The DS3, which we terminated on a brand new 7200vxr, was vastly superior to the crawling T1, and the effort paid off with our users.

DSL was groundbreaking.  There was nothing consumer-grade before that, and small companies could not even afford Internet connectivity.  I was one of the first home adopters of DSL.  The freshly-trained phone guy showed up at my apartment and installed a splitter box in the basement.  This was needed because residential service was ADSL, which multiplexed digital service on an analog line.  Unlike ISDN, which converted analog phone signal to digital, ADSL left the analog in tact, adding the digital part of the signal onto the higher frequencies.  The splitter box took the incoming phone line from the street and peeled off the high frequencies, providing an analog signal for telephones.  It then passed through the analog/digital mix intact to the modem, which just ignored the analog frequencies.  The phone guy then sat down with his toolbelt and tried to configure TCP/IP on my computer.  He gave up because he had no idea what he was doing.  I told him to leave me the IP addresses and I’d do it myself.  Eventually the telco would just send you an small filter to plug into each analog phone jack yourself, and they could turn on the service without sending a phone guy to rewire things.  Once DSL in its various forms came out, the Internet was available to the masses.  Of course, cable modems came shortly after.

We take for granted instant connectivity from every location on portable devices.  Once upon a time,  connectivity was only available at certain locations, often requiring dialing a service provider.  There was a real excitement as new technologies emerged for making connectivity faster and easier.  Now, of course, we just expect things to work and get angry when they don’t.