Friday, August 01, 2008

BPN 1176 Twenty years in telecom networks

Recently, I received an interesting book on the history of SURFnet, the Dutch university network organisation (thanks Mariska!). The book is a commemorative book on the 20 anniversary of the organisations; it was also the commemorative book for the departing CEO Boudewijn Nederkoorn, one of the founding fathers of SURFnet.

The book is interesting as it presents contemporary online history. SURFnet was the result of university computer centres banning together to set up a network between the Dutch universities, to link the network to the European academic networks and to connect to the international academic networks. While setting up a network infrastructure, the SURFnet people got caught up in the internet roll-out. As they had the Dutch PTT (now KPN) as a shareholder, they got involved in the OSI X-25 vs. the TCP/IP discussion and decided already in an early stage that OSI-25was not the road to take, much to the chagrin of the PTT.

In the meantime the organisation has become a prominent network organisation in the Netherlands and outside. It now delivers an infrastructure for universities and colleges, libraries and school services. It also takes care of the international connections, for example with the Grid network GĂ©ant. By now it has developed six generations of networks and is drawing the seventh generation. The networks are so successful that even the old-time partner bought SURFnet5 for it commercial operation. Internationally it has optical light paths to speed up international secure services.

SURFnet has been a catalyser in the Dutch development of internet. It picked up internet from the beginning and was one of the first academic organisations to have it commercialised by private companies, while the Dutch incumbent KPN did not yet believe in internet. SURFnet was also one of the first organisations to establish Fibre To The Dormitory (FTTD) at jealous making speeds to normal consumers; it was also one of the first organisations transporting internet over the cable in dormitories.

The book, written by Verhoog & Warmerdam, a bureau for company history and genealogy, reads like a techno adventure book. However it wrongly establishes the impression that the network scene in pre-internet era was almost void and empty. From 1977 he Netherlands was already experimenting with online. The publisher Kluwer, now part of Wolters Kluwer, started to build up a legal online database. By 1980 a first consumer and SME service based on videotex, Viditel, came online. E-mail and online retrieval services were already handled by a national Datanet-1 as well as the European network Diane*Euronet (photograph taken in 1980, the network being demonstrated by the EC official Franco Mastroddi). The impression that hardly any network activities did exist in the early eighties or even before is based on the fact that the ASCII database world did not talk with the videotex world, which was looked at as the Volkswagen of the online world. Yes and there was already e-mail; in fact I have been empowered by e-mail since 1980, amongst others through the American service The Source and the hardly used videotext e-mail service of Viditel. All these services were searching for a market with confusion as a result. So when SURFnet started to set up another network, more confusion was added. But all this was over on January 1, 1997, when Videotex Nederland stopped its service and TCP/IP became a unifying factor in the network world.

Blog Posting Number: 1176

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