My History of Home Networking

The Raison D'ĂȘtre Emerges

After having been on Macintosh for several years, I bought my first IBM-compatible PC, a Compaq Presario 4716, in 1997. Windows 95 finally had enough functionality that I could leave my Mac behind without (too many) regrets. By that time, the tide was shifting, and games were no longer being released for both the PC and Macintosh. That Compaq had an unusual configuration in that the PCI and ISA slots were mounted on a daughter card that inserted perpendicularly to the motherboard. I took that system apart so often and tinkered with it so much that I wore down the connectors. I used to have to slam the daughter card into the motherboard to guarantee a connection. My tinkering gathered full force. I maxed out the memory to the full 128MB. Added a graphics card (in place of the onboard graphics). A second disk. A bigger first disk. A faster CD-ROM drive. An I/O card for more ports. I went through two or three brands of modems because goodness knows I had to be able to connect at the full 53Kbps. (The one that came with it was only 33.6 Kbps. Shudder.) Ah, the good old days.

During the time that I was gaming on that wonderful 4716, I was also doing contract software development and had a Compaq Presario 1672 laptop. My daughter had taken over an old PowerMacintosh 6100 (then upgraded with the AV Card, more memory, more disk space and a faster CD-ROM drive) as her own, which left my son out in the cold. I bought him his first PC - a no-name brand with a K6/II+ 350MHz processor, a PC Chips motherboard and the first AGP graphics card I ever had in the house, a Leadtek GeForce 3 Ti200. I got it from a questionable source on eBay that Microsoft eventually sued out of existence for selling Windows 95 software for which they hadn't paid. I also bought a laser printer, an HP4000N (which I still have today) with a JetDirect network card.

I bought my first true gaming machine from Falcon Northwest in the middle of 1999. It was hopped up with a blazing 700 MHz Athlon K7 Slot A CPU, the original GeForce 256 and a pair of VooDoo2 1000s in SLI mode (expressly for playing Falcon 4.0 flight simulator). It also had Seagate Cheetah 15K RPM SCSI disk drives with an Adaptec controller and a Hercules Fortissimo sound card. The system came with Klipsch ProMedia 4.1 speakers (no longer manufactured) that could literally vibrate the floors and walls. It was a seriously killer rig .. at the time. It was also the last commercial machine I bought. I started building my own machines after that, and I have been ever since.

We had enough machines such that we needed a home network. I wanted it, if for no other reason so that I could share that expensive HP printer. My first network was just a simple, closed local area network (LAN). The Windows PCs and my work laptop could exchange files. All machines - including the Macintosh - could use the printer (since it has Postscript, too). Initially, I used fixed IP addresses that were manually assigned to all the machines and used a simple Ethernet hub to connect everything. We even played a number of different LAN games. For Internet access, every machine still had a dedicated modem, and we all shared a single dial-up account over a dedicated modem phone line. While this worked, one of the family members tended to hog the dial-up connection. Yes, it was me.

The solution to sharing the dial-up line turned out to be my old Compaq Presario 4716. That and Linux. Specifically RedHat Linux, which at the time was freely available. (This was before RedHat decided home and small business users weren't worth serving and started the Fedora project). I turned that machine into my router/firewall/DHCP server. Whenever any of the machines on the network needed to get on the Internet, the Linux box would dial up my ISP if it wasn't online already. It would hang up after an hour of idle time. We had 3-4 computers sharing a whopping 50 Kbps dial-up connection. It went surprisingly well, considering. Most homes at that time were accessing the Internet using dial-up, so most web sites were conservative about the graphics they displayed. AOL was going strong. Google just barely existed. YouTube didn't even exist. Big downloads were saved until late at night, but general web browsing and email worked just fine.

Of UT and DSL

Something magical happened in early 2000. I found out I that DSL was available in my neighborhood from a small company called "Rhythms." Rhythms didn't offer residential DSL though, which meant I had to get higher-cost business DSL with a static IP address. In fact, it was $184.00/month for 384K SDSL service with 32 internal static IP addresses and one external static IP address. I called and asked one of the technical support reps if it was OK if I put up a mail server and a web server as I hadn't seen anything in the contract about it. His response was something to the effect that it's business DSL. If was not illegal, I was allowed to do it. I registered and with Network Solutions, put a second Ethernet card in my Compaq 2716, installed a web server, FTP server, and email server and a domain was born.

The online gaming landscape was nice enough to wait until we had decent Internet. Quake III Arena and Unreal Tournament (UT) were both released (within a couple weeks of each other) just before getting DSL at our house. After that, there were a number of fun multiplayer games (or at least games with multiplayer added) like Half Life's Counter Strike mod, which later became a game in its own right. I logged many, many happy hours playing Unreal Tournament. I managed to outlive Rhythms, unfortunately, so when they went chapter 11, I switched to Network Access Solutions (NAS). I bumped up to 512Kbps/512Kbps and later 784Kbps for $186/month, but they only gave me a single static IP address. I got to learn about NAT routing in Linux. Finally, in October 2004 (and several PC builds later), I switched to Verizon DSL. I never had a complaint about NAS, but Verizon finally woke up and noticed that others were eating their lunch. I got 1.5 Mbps down by 384Kbps up from Verizon for $99/month (also with one static IP address). I just couldn't pass up twice the speed incoming for half the price even though I did take an upload speed hit. Verizon later bumped that up to 3 Mbps down by 768K up for the same price. Did I stay happy? Of course not.

I See The Light

In the summer and fall of 2005, Verizon trucks swarmed my town. They were burying bright orange conduit everywhere. After a little digging of my own (pun intended), I found out the conduit was for new fiber to the premises. Verizon FiOS was coming to my town. Internet service would initially be 15 Mbps down by 2 Mbps up. Static IP addresses were only offered for business accounts (as it was for DSL), but for the same $99/month I was paying already. I signed up to be notified when it was available. When the crews came through and buried the conduit in my yard, I was ready to hold a light, bring them drinks & food or whatever else would help speed them along. I checked the "Can You Get FiOS?" site daily until one day it said, "Yes!" I ordered FiOS on December 23, 2005 and installation took place on January 12, 2006. The golden days had arrived.

About a year or so later, Verizon started offering FiOS TV service. I switched from DirectTV to FiOS TV. I did ditch the Verizon (Motorola) DVR for a pair of single-channel cable cards and a TiVO Series 3 DVR though. I had to rebel a little, I guess. That and the Motorola DVR crashed daily, lost programs, lost programming, etc. The second time that DVR crash during a Superbowl game, I knew it had to go. I've upgraded the TiVo and now have a single dual-channel cable card. I love my TiVo.

I still have Verizon FiOS as of this writing. My speed is now 75/75 Mbps down/up (with many intermediate speeds before that). I now host this site at a hosting facility, so I've switched from business FiOS to residential FiOS. My firewall machine is still a Linux box - Ubuntu now rather than RedHat. I only use it as a firewall/router (iptables), ssh server and DHCP server for the internal LAN. At this point, Verizon provides my land line, cell phones, TV and Internet service. I am definitely docked to the Verizon mothership. (Somewhat less now that I cut-the-cord.)