Usenet History: The Technological Setting

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  • 26 Feb 2021
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Usenet, Netnews, was founded almost exactly forty years ago this very week. In order to better understand where it came from or why certain decisions were made the way they were, it is important to take into consideration the technological shortcomings of the time.

Early Part Of History

The mainframes were still roaming across the world in 1979, around Steven Bellovin, founder of AT&T, was in college. In reality, it was the predominant method of computation. The IBM PC will have been around 2 years old in the future. The microprocessors of those days, as they were known, had much less space for anything more or less important. As such minicomputers, which were smaller, just the size of one or possibly two refrigerators, were used for specific applications. Most definitely in research laboratories such as process control. The super mini-computers with low I/O bandwidth and good processing ability were getting cheaper.

Unix operated the Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11 on a common line of microcomputers at this period. The PDP-11 used to have a 16-bit network address (although with the correct OS, you could almost duplicate it by using a 16-bit network address for directions and a different one for data). Capacity was restricted to a very few megabytes based on the configuration to 10s of kilobytes (yes, kilobytes). No particular program was allowed to access upwards of 64K at a point. The additional physical memory implied that without switching, a context transfer could always be achieved as other processes could also be memory-resident.

Early Networking Issues

Networking was not possible for many people. There was ARPANET, but to do so you wanted to be a lobbyist for defense or institution with a DARPA research grant. IBM had different modes of connectivity based on licensed synchronous communications systems. At minimum a common packet-switched infrastructure existed (and only few were connected to the network through a very limited number of old frameworks for the dial-up package mobile entry).

One other thing half-common was really the 300 bps dial-up modem. Just launched the Bell 212A full duplex, dial-up modem was uncommon. Why does this happen? It would have to be rented by the telecommunications company more or less: Ma Bell, more officially known as AT&T. Purchasing your own modems was legal, and have it hardwired to your telephone network. It was feasible to go over a rented adapter called the DAA (data access arrangements) to “secure the phone network.”

The Beginning of Usenet

However, Usenet was conceptualized in a world of regulation slightly different. Duke University served by Duke Telecom, a university body (and Durham was GTE). Whereas Chapel Telecommunications, the University owned by phones, electricity, sewer and water systems was supported by UNC Chapel Hill. Steven Bellovin was a student, and around that time the government ordered the services to dive.

Steven Bellovin along with few others, with Duke’s support, have introduced the Unix 6th issue as part-time operating system on our PDP11. Some staff were sufficiently motivated to spend enough money on purchasing a decent 8-port converter and also more RAM. This may have been our core storage, though around the time semiconductor RAM was beginning to get affordable. Shortly afterwards we had a couple of VAX-11/780, but Usenet was born on the sluggish, tiny 11/45.

The Catalyst Of Networking

The wish to update to Unix’s 7th version was the imminent catalyst for Usenet. Upon its 6th Unix version Duke used an update they received from other locations to deliver messages as they signed in to announcements. But it wasn’t always convenient to send certain messages. It needed a 5-line letter to print 300 bps — 30 characters per second. This update isn’t even slightly consistent with 7th Edition login command- a new implementation was required. And UUCP (Unix to Unix Copy), an interconnection method, was available in the 7th Version.

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