Anthony J. Pennings, PhD



Posted on | September 13, 2016 | No Comments

Len Bosack and Sandy Lerner left Stanford University in December 1984 to launch Cisco Systems, a California-based company known for innovative networking devices. Data communications, and particularly, packet-switching, the key technology of the Internet, was in its infancy. Leading computer companies like IBM were slow to make the major innovations needed for its success. So the recently married duo took a chance and started their company to develop and market data networking technology.

In a previous post, I discussed the formation of Cisco and its contribution to universities connecting to the NSFNET. In this post, I examine how Cisco Systems emerged around the “Blue Box” network software and technology and how the company went on to become the key supplier of key Internet technologies for the emerging World Wide Web.

The key to Cisco’s strategy was to develop routing technology that could direct the packets of data along the network. In a sense, routing technology would act like a traffic cop helping to move automobiles through a busy intersection. Similarly, data routers facilitate movement of packets of digital information – 1s and 0s – through the intersections of the Internet. Packets of digital data are constructed by Transmission Control Protocols (TCP) and individually addressed by the Internet Protocol (IP) to transverse various networks. Routers were created to read an IP address and direct the packet towards the next stop in the network, or to another network, on its “route” to the intended destination.

This video is a little advanced, but discusses the differences between switches and routers.

The Internet was originally designed as a military network that could compensate if an enemy attack destroyed some network nodes. Early data communication equipment was designed to sense if a network node was offline (ie destroyed) and choose another route to direct the data towards its final destination. As networks could also become congested with too much traffic, modern routers were developed to determine the best path to send the email, document, file or web page, often in terms of the “cost” of transmission as well.

The Cisco founders did not invent the router technology. Instead, they drew together important work by many people at Xerox PARC and Stanford University that became the basis for the “Blue Box” (1981). This portable computer was originally designed to increase the distance between networked computers but turned out to be much more. The Blue Box incorporated three crucial innovations: the 3Mb Ethernet transceiver and adapter, workstation network boards, and the software that became the foundation for the Cisco operating system.

3Mb Ethernet Transceiver and Adapter

Xerox PARC is more popularly known for developing the graphic user interfaces that became the basis for the Apple Macintosh and Microsoft’s Windows environment. PARC had donated a lot of computers and network technology to Stanford University. This became a dynamic new environment for fertile innovation and the development of many of our current digital technologies.

Robert Metcalfe brought the AlohaNet technology to PARC that resulted in the Ethernet technology. The new version was standardized in 1983 as IEEE 802.3. Initially, it was used widely for Local Area Network (LANs) on campuses and companies; it is currently used for many services including wireless communications. Metcalfe formed a company, 3Com Corporation that became a leader in client-server networking and expanded into product areas such as digital switches, internetworking routers, modems, network hubs, network management software, network interface cards, and remote access systems.

Workstation Network Boards

Andy Bechtolsheim, with other Stanford graduate students, produced a network board based on their Aloha Alto Computer. This technology connected the computer to the Ethernet and became the prototype of the SUN workstation that was later marketed by another spin-off company, Sun Microsystems.

Software for Multiple Routing Protocols

Bill Yeager, who wrote software for a number of network connections on campus, including an ARPANET Interface Message Processor (IMP), contributed crucial code for the Blue Box. His software provided instructions to guide data traffic from different LANs using multiple routing protocols. Networks at the time were almost exclusively proprietary, designed to connect equipment from the same manufacturer. Yeager designed protocols that permitted data to be exchanged among different types of mainframe terminals, printers, and workstations. It initially linked Xerox’s Aloha Alto workstations, mainframes, mini-computers and printers, but was rewritten to connect different networks. Yeager’s software became the foundational operating system of Cisco’s routers and consequently, for modern local and wide area networking, including the Internet.

In the next section I will focus on Cisco’s push into TCP/IP protocols.



AnthonybwAnthony J. Pennings, PhD is Professor and Associate Chair of the Department of Technology and Society, State University of New York, Korea. Before joining SUNY, he taught at Hannam University in South Korea and from 2002-2012 was on the faculty of New York University. Previously, he taught at St. Edwards University in Austin, Texas, Marist College in New York, and Victoria University in New Zealand. He has also spent time as a Fellow at the East-West Center in Honolulu, Hawaii.


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