|Jack Ganssle's Blog
This is Jack's outlet for thoughts about designing and programming embedded systems. It's a complement to my bi-weekly newsletter The Embedded Muse. Contact me at email@example.com. I'm an old-timer engineer who still finds the field endlessly fascinating (bio).
|For novel ideas about building embedded systems (both hardware and firmware), join the 40,000+ engineers who subscribe to The Embedded Muse, a free biweekly newsletter. The Muse has no hype and no vendor PR. Click here to subscribe.
Networking Did Not Start With the IoT
July 29, 2020
Today the world is obsessed with the IoT, as if this is a new concept. We've been building the IoT for decades, but it was only recently some marketing "genius" came up with the new buzz-acronym.
Before there was an IoT, before there was an Internet, many of us were busy networking. For the Internet itself was a (brilliant) extension of what was already going on in the industry.
My first experience with networking was in 1971 at the University of Maryland. The school had a new computer, a $10 million Univac 1108 mainframe. This was a massive beast that occupied most of the first floor of a building. A dual-processor machine it was transistorized, though the control console did have some ICs. Rows of big tape drives mirrored the layman's idea of computers in those days. Many dishwasher-sized disk drives were placed around the floor and printers, card readers and other equipment were crammed into every corner. Two Fastrand drum memories, each consisting of a pair of six-foot long counterrotating drums, stored a whopping 90 MB each. Through a window you could watch the heads bounce around.
The machine was networked. It had a 300 baud modem with which it could contact computers at other universities. A primitive email system let users create mail which was queued till nightfall. Then, when demands on the machine were small, it would call the appropriate remote computer and forward mail. The system operated somewhat like today's "hot potato" packets, where the message might get delivered to the easiest machine available, which would then attempt further forwarding. It could take a week to get an email, but at least one saved the $0.08 stamp that the USPS charged.
The system was too slow to be useful. After college I lost my email account but didn't miss it at all.
By the late 70s many of us had our own computers. Mine was a home-made CP/M machine with a Z80 processor and a small TV set as a low-res monitor. Around this time Compuserve came along and I, like so many others, got an account with them. Among other features, users had email addresses. Pretty soon it was common to dial into their machines over a 300 baud modem and exchange email and files. Eventually Compuserve became so ubiquitous that millions were connected, and at my tools business during the 1980s it was common to provide support via this email. The CP/M machine gave way to a succession of PCs, Modems ramped up to 57 K baud.
My tools business expanded rapidly and soon we had a number of employees. Sneakernet was getting less efficient so we installed an Arcnet network using Windows 3.11. That morphed into Ethernet connections, though the cursing from networking problems multiplied about as fast as the data transfers. Windows was just terrible at maintaining reliable connectivity.
In 1992 Mike Lee, a friend from my Boys Night Out beer/politics/sailing/great friends group, which still meets weekly (though lately virtually) came by the office with his laptop. "You have GOT to see this" he intoned, and he showed me the world-wide web. There wasn't much to see as there were few sites. But the promise was shockingly clear. I was stunned.
The tools business had been doing well. Within a month we spent $100k on computers, modems and the like and had a new business: Softaid Internet Services. SIS was one of Maryland's first ISPs and grew quickly to several thousand customers. We had a T1 connection to MAE-EAST in the DC area which gave us a 1.5 Mb/s link… for $5000/month. Though a few customers had ISDN connections to us, most were dialup, and our modem shelf grew to over 100 units with many big fans keeping the things cool.
The computers all ran BSD Unix, which was my first intro to that OS.
I was only a few months back from a failed attempt to singlehand my sailboat across the Atlantic and had written a book-length account of that trip. I hastily created a web page of that book to learn about using the web. It is still online and has been read several million times in the intervening years. We put up a site for the tools business which eventually became our prime marketing arm.
The SIS customers were sometimes, well, "interesting." There was the one who claimed to be a computer expert, but who tried to use the mouse by waving it around over the desk. Many had no idea how to connect a modem. Others complained about our service because it dropped out when mom would pick up the phone to make a call over the modem's beeping. A lot of handholding and training was required.
The logs showed a shocking (to me at the time) amount of porn consumption. Over lunch an industry pundit explained how porn drove all media, from the earliest introduction of printing hundreds of years earlier.
The woman who ran the ISP was from India. She was delightful and had a wonderful marriage. She later told me it had been arranged; they met their wedding day. She came from a remote and poor village and had had no exposure to computers, or electricity, till emigrating to the USA.
Meanwhile many of our tools customers were building networking equipment. We worked closely with many of them and often had big routers, switches and the like onsite that our engineers were working on. We worked on a lot of what we'd now call IoT gear: sensors et al connected to the net via a profusion of interfaces.
I sold both the tools and Internet businesses in 1997, but by then the web and Internet were old stories.
Today, like so many of us, I have a fast (250 Mb/s) and cheap connection into the house with four wireless links and multiple computers chattering to each other. Where in 1992 the web was incredibly novel and truly lacking in useful functionality, now I can't imagine being deprived of it. Remember travel agents? Ordering things over the phone (a phone that had a physical wire connecting it to Ma Bell)? Using 15 volumes of an encyclopedia? Physically mailing stuff to each other?
As one gets older the years spin by like microseconds, but it is amazing to stop and consider just how much this world has changed. My great grandfather lived on a farm in a world that changed slowly; he finally got electricity in his last year of life. His daughter didn't have access to a telephone till later in life, and my dad designed spacecraft on vellum and starched linen using a slide rule. My son once saw a typewriter and asked me what it was; I mumbled that it was a predecessor of Microsoft Word.
That he understood. I didn't have the heart to try and explain carbon paper.
Feel free to email me with comments.
Back to Jack's blog index page.
If you'd like to post a comment without logging in, click in the "Name" box under "Or sign up with Disqus" and click on "I'd rather post as a guest."
Recent blog postings:
- Spies in Our Email - Email abuse from our trusted friends
- A Canticle for Leibowitz - One of my favorite books.
- A 72123 beats per minute heart rate - Is it possible?
- Networking Did Not Start With The IoT! - Despite what the marketing folks claim
- In-Circuit Emulators - Does anyone remember ICEs?
- My GP-8E Computer - About my first (working!) computer
- Humility - On The Death of Expertise and what this means for engineering
- On Checklists - Relying on memory is a fool's errand. Effective people use checklists.
- Why Does Software Cost So Much? - An exploration of this nagging question.
- Is the Future All Linux and Raspberry Pi? - Will we stop slinging bits and diddling registers?
- Will Coronavirus Spell the End of Open Offices - How can we continue to work in these sorts of conditions?
- Problems in Ramping Up Ventilator Production - It's not as easy as some think.
- Lessons from a Failure - what we can learn when a car wash goes wrong.
- Life in the Time of Coronavirus - how are you faring?
- Superintelligence - A review of Nick Bostrom's book on AI.
- A Lack of Forethought - Y2K redux
- How Projects Get Out of Control - Think requirements churn is only for software?
- 2019's Most Important Lesson. The 737 Max disasters should teach us one lesson.
- On Retiring - It's not quite that time, but slowing down makes sense. For me.
- On Discipline - The one thing I think many teams need...
- Data Seems to Have No Value - At least, that's the way people treat it.
- Apollo 11 and Navigation - In 1969 the astronauts used a sextant. Some of us still do.
- Definitions Part 2 - More fun definitions of embedded systems terms.
- Definitions - A list of (funny) definitions of embedded systems terms.
- On Meta-Politics - Where has thoughtful discourse gone?
- Millennials and Tools - It seems that many millennials are unable to fix anything.
- Crappy Tech Journalism - The trade press is suffering from so much cost-cutting that it does a poor job of educating engineers.
- Tech and Us - I worry that our technology is more than our human nature can manage.
- On Cataracts - Cataract surgery isn't as awful as it sounds.
- Can AI Replace Firmware - A thought: instead of writing code, is the future training AIs?
- Customer non-Support - How to tick off your customers in one easy lesson.
- Learn to Code in 3 Weeks! - Firmware is not simply about coding.
- We Shoot For The Moon - a new and interesting book about the Apollo moon program.
- On Expert Witness Work - Expert work is fascinating but can be quite the hassle.
- Married To The Team - Working in a team is a lot like marriage.
- Will We Ever Get Quantum Computers - Despite the hype, some feel quantum computing may never be practical.
- Apollo 11, The Movie - A review of a great new movie.
- Goto Considered Necessary - Edsger Dijkstra recants on his seminal paper
- GPS Will Fail - In April GPS will have its own Y2K problem. Unbelievable.
- LIDAR in Cars - Really? - Maybe there are better ideas.
- Why Did You Become an Engineer? - This is the best career ever.
- Software Process Improvement for Firmware - What goes on in an SPI audit?
- 50 Years of Ham Radio - 2019 marks 50 years of ham radio for me.
- Medical Device Lawsuits - They're on the rise, and firmware is part of the problem.
- A retrospective on 2018 - My marketing data for 2018, including web traffic and TEM information.
- Remembering Circuit Theory - Electronics is fun, and reviewing a textbook is pretty interesting.
- R vs D - Too many of us conflate research and development
- Engineer or Scientist? - Which are you? John Q. Public has a hard time telling the difference.
- A New, Low-Tech, Use for Computers - I never would have imagined this use for computers.
- NASA's Lost Software Engineering Lessons - Lessons learned, lessons lost.
- The Cost of Firmware - A Scary Story! - A hallowean story to terrify.
- A Review of First Man, the Movie - The book was great. The movie? Nope.
- A Review of The Overstory - One of the most remarkable novels I've read in a long time.
- What I Learned About Successful Consulting - Lessons learned about successful consulting.
- Low Power Mischief - Ultra-low power systems are trickier to design than most realize.
- Thoughts on Firmware Seminars - Better Firmware Faster resonates with a lot of people.
- On Evil - The Internet has brought the worst out in many.
- My Toothbrush has Modes - What! A lousy toothbrush has a UI?
- Review of SUNBURST and LUMINARY: An Apollo Memoir - A good book about the LM's code.
- Fun With Transmission Lines - Generating a step with no electronics.
- On N-Version Programming - Can we improve reliability through redundancy? Maybe not.
- On USB v. Bench Scopes - USB scopes are nice, but I'll stick with bench models.