Networking

In 1974, Xerox thought Ethernet "would be a failure"


Xerox MemoIn 1973, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) saw the future, and nobody listened. At least, that's the conventional wisdom, since the famed Xerox Alto personal computer never saw the light of day, even though it had e-mail, Ethernet, file servers, and a mouse-driven GUI years before anyone else. The Alto died stillborn because Xerox execs didn't think it could sell, or so the scuttlebutts say. Heck, some refused to believe it could be built, as this 1974 Xerox memo confirms, decrying the science behind the Ethernet protocol.

Except that this memo is right. If you read between the lines, the "evil exec" is noting that Ethernet wouldn't work without a control mechanism -- mechanisms that we now have in the form of routers and switches. Robert Metcalfe and David Boggs, authors of the original proposal, would go on to publish the seminal paper on Ethernet in 1976, and Xerox (along with DEC and IBM) actually helped formalize the Ethernet standard in 1980, but it was a fight all the way. Some say that fight was due to a lack of vision -- and maybe that's true -- but it's easy to kick the execs in hindsight and especially easy to forget that, along the way, a little healthy pushback makes for a better product.

From byteCoder via reddit.

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Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger -- amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

5 comments
CAnonynous
CAnonynous

Appropriately, through a conversation with Comedian Wayne Cutter (http://www.waynecotter.com) about Xerox PARC, I became aware in a Google search that my March 4, 1974 private Xerox Confidential Memo to Bob Metcalf and Dave Boggs was floating around the Internet and a major subject on numerous blogs. Unfortunately the role of my memo in the development of Ethernet II is not understood. Ethernet was the invention of Bob Metcalf and Dave Boggs as an outgrowth of Bob???s PhD thesis on the Aloha Net packet communications network. As is well documented, Xerox PARC from the beginning (1972-1974) was investigating distributed computing and several methods were in various stages of concept and feasibility development. Ethernet II emerged as the internal development vehicle and Xerox commercialized Ethernet III. I joined the Xerox PARC General Sciences Laboratory from Bell Laboratories in the summer of 1973 where I had worked on the first commercialization of light emitting diodes. At PARC our group was participating in the founding of the Stanford Synchrotron Radiation Laboratory. The prototype equipment we developed is now in the Smithsonian Museum. Part of this equipment was an advanced computer aided data acquisition system I developed. Although I am a condensed matter physicist, I was very interested in computers and software. I often hung out with the guys in the Computer Science Lab (one of whom recently visited the space station) which is how I received the first draft of Bob Metcalf???s and Dave Bogg???s technical paper describing their Ethernet I networking concept. (The team by the way was somewhat like Jobs and Wozniak in their respective contributions.) Ethernet I was a 3 mbs packet channel with software collision identification. Our practice at the time, as it was at Bell Labs, was to have open and frank critique and internal review of technical papers before they were publicly released. It was in that spirit that I wrote my memo which only took on mythical proportions because CSL Lab Manager Bob Taylor chose to post it on his door. The memo itself was written in 30 minutes at about 11pm the night before. CSL at that time was something of a ???hippy commune??? and meetings were held with everyone lying around on bean bags. The first draft of the Ethernet I paper was written accordingly in a hip style. At the time I considered the draft quite an unprofessional document in addition to my technical concerns. I also at the time did not like the idea of naming a major new networking innovation after a discredited physics concept, the ???ether???. The ether doesn???t exist and this was a real network on a real baseband coaxial cable medium. At the time of Ethernet I, packet collision identification was done in software with a CRC check of each packet. Software detection of damaged packets would trigger staged random backoff until the valid packet was received. Following the ???memo???, Bob Metcalf, Dave Boggs and I got together and had an extensive technical discussion of their paper on Ethernet I and its limitations. In that meeting I introduced them to the collision detection techniques used in pulse counting apparatus such as I used in my photon counting spectroscopic equipment at Bells Labs and at SSRL.1 Basically the receiver detection is an analogue to digital conversion and by suitable discrimination, one can distinguish between on and two pulse events. If two packets collided on the Ethernet cable at the tranceiver, then the receiver could determine that the pulse signal was wrong. The outcome of this discussion was Ethernet II. The Ethernet II hardware collision detection incorporated into the transceiver resulted from this discussion and transformed the networking capability and resolved many of the concerns I raised in my memo. Dave Boggs quickly incorporated hardware collision detection into the transceiver. Hardware collision detection enabled an Ethernet II communication channel to achieve effective utilization while limiting the system overhead and paved the way for Ethernet???s future success as we know it today. So to all the blogger???s out there, I was not a ???Xerox Executive???, I was a young member of the technical staff , as were Bob and Dave, contributing to the fertile discussion in a very creative multi-disciplinary lab. I have grown to like the name Ethernet because of what has been accomplished. I don???t even mind all the other subsequent packet communication techniques that call themselves XXX-Ethernet and aren???t. I spent 30 minutes writing the memo and perhaps 2 hours in discussion with Bob and Dave. I then went back to the science on which I was focusing. Bob made Ethernet his life???s work. So you bloggers should now switch your attention to Liveboard, a PARC invention pioneered by John Seeley Brown. Liveboard in the mid ???80???s envisioned large flat panel interactive networked computer displays which could be used for group meetings and networked meetings. Through my work at Applied Materials over the last 17 years, we have created the ability to cost effectively manufacture such large LCD flat panel displays. LCD-TV and Computer Displays of 65???, 75???, and 108??? are now entering mass production by our customers. Soon they will be in homes, offices, class-rooms and enumerable public spaces. These Liveboard displays will now be connected by Ethernet and also be lit by light emitting diodes whose commercialization I also helped pioneer. Every time you look at your computer display, you are looking at technology I helped to create and enabled it???s volume manufacturing. In case you didn???t know. LCD displays are enabled by amorphous silicon transistors, another technology pioneered at Xerox PARC and commercialized by Applied Materials manufacturing equipment.. R.Z. Bachrach, Memorial Day Weekend, 2008. CAnonymous@earthlink.net 1) R. Z. Bachrach, Rev. Sci. Inst., 43, 734 (1972), "A Photon Counting Apparatus for Kinetic and Spectral Measurements."

Eoghan
Eoghan

Bachrach was correct, it needed a control mechanism, not routers and switches, but a protocol. As Soderblom eventually pointed out, token technology was created in the 1960s. Ethernet followed AlohaNet and used collision detection to solve the control problem, CSMA/CD. Repeaters, Bridges, Routers and switches solved a different problem.

Willy MacWindows
Willy MacWindows

We're human, if it doens't involve a fight it probably isn't worth much.

wmlundine
wmlundine

"...a little healthy pushback makes for a better product." Now that just don't sound right.

dziedzicmj
dziedzicmj

The main comment states that the exec was right: "Except that this memo is right. If you read between the lines, the ?evil exec? is noting that Ethernet wouldn?t work without a control mechanism ? mechanisms that we now have in the form of routers and switches". Actually, this is not necessarily th case. The memo states that a random form of transmission initiation would not work (and this is not what the routers or switches control). The exec, apparently, believed that the only reasonable way of transmitting data was the "synchronous" mode ("This requires a _synchronized_ system"). If I could understand the memo correctly, R. Bachrach was thinking about a protocol similar to the good old Token Ring (or something similar). Btw. the same arguments (synchronised vs. random) were used for years in discussions on TR vs. Ethernet. Interestingly, even though theoretically, TR was supposedly superior, Ethernet, eventually won.

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