My History of Home Networking

The Raison D'être 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 simultaneously released for both the PC and Macintosh. More often, they weren't released for the Macintosh at all. That Compaq had an unusual configuration in that it had the PCI and ISA slots 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 we ever had in the house. (I can't recall what the original graphics card was, but eventually, I upgraded it to a Leadtek GeForce 3 Ti200.) I got the original PC 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 vibrate the floors and walls. At the time, Intel was blindsided and worried about the K7. So much so, the Asus motherboard did not has the Asus name or logo anywhere on it. The rumor at the time was that Intel had threatened the board makers that if they supported the K7, they would have issues getting any more Intel chips. (It was several years - and several iterations of both the Intel and AMD CPU lines - before Intel came out with a chip that could beat AMD CPUs.) It was a seriously killer rig .. at the time. It was also the last commercial machine I bought. I returned to building my 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 (i.e., no DHCP server at all) and used a simple Ethernet hub to connect everything. We even played several 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 system into my router/firewall/DNS server. Whenever any of the computers 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. (I even had a pair of very early wireless networking PCMCIA cards that topped out a 2 Mbps. I had to install an PCMCIA adapter in my Compaq to make it work. I don't think they were 802.11anything.) It went surprisingly well, considering. Most homes at that time were accessing the Internet using dial-up, so most websites were conservative about the graphics they displayed. AOL was going strong. Google just barely existed. YouTube didn't even exist. By agreement, large downloads took place only late at night after we went to bed, but general web browsing and email worked just fine. The figure below (click on the thumbnail to expand) shows the beginnings of a real network.

Home network before DSL image 1 0f 1 thumb

 

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 (synchronous DSL or with the same down and up speeds) 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 pcweenie.com and pcweenie.net with Network Solutions, put a second Ethernet card in my Compaq 2716, installed a web server, an FTP server, and an email server. A domain was born.

Rhythms DSL Network Layout image 1 0f 1 thumb

As the network diagram above shows, I added a few more systems on the network. (I left the modem in the Compaq just in case I was forced to go back. Never used it again.) All of these IP were still externally routable IP addresses. I could (and a few times accidentally did) print to my printer from anywhere I had Internet access. Now, I had an actual wireless router (the Linksys BEFW11S4), so I split my 32 IP addresses into two networks of 16 IP addresses, and routed half of them through the wireless router.

Keep in mind, this was before built-in wireless was normal - there were no iPads or tablets of any kind. Cell phones were still expensive and, not "smart" for the most part. The iPhone and Android phones didn't come out until years after this. Wireless networking at this time meant add-in (PCMCIA) cards in laptops. Even limited to laptops, it was easy to see that wireless networking was going alter the way the Internet was used.

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 of weeks of each other) just before getting DSL at our house. After that, there were some 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 as they went chapter 11 in the middle of 2001, I switched to Network Access Solutions (NAS) in July 2001. (See the diagram below.) I bumped up to 512Kbps/512Kbps and later 784Kbps for $186/month, and while they gave me 32 IP addresses, they wouldn't give me a separate "external" IP address. They apparently just didn't do that. Therefore, if I wanted my devices behind a firewall (and I really did), I had to split the 32 IPs into two 16 IP addresses networks myself and waste a dozen of those addresses as "external" IPs. That left me with only 14 usable "internal" IP addresses. That wasn't a big deal at the time since I didn't have 14 devices on the Internet. I did have to bypass the WAN portion of the Linksys BEFW11S4, which effectively changed it from a router to a wireless access point. Oh, the good old days.

Network Access Solutions DSL Network Layout image 1 0f 1 thumb

Finally, in October 2004 (and several PC builds later), I switched to Verizon DSL. (See the diagram below.) I never had a complaint about the service from NAS, but Verizon finally woke up and noticed that others were eating their lunch. And Verizon was both faster and much cheaper. This service was 1.5 Mbps down by 384Kbps up for $99/month. I just couldn't pass up twice the speed incoming for half the price even though I did take an upload speed hit. The down side was Verizon only gave me a single fixed IP address. I got to learn about NAT routing in Linux. Verizon later bumped that up to 3 Mbps down by 768K up for the same price. Was I really happy? Of course not.

Verizon DSL Network Layout image 1 0f 1 thumb

 

I See The Light

In the summer and fall of 2005, Verizon trucks swarmed my town. They were burying bright orange plastic conduit everywhere. After a little digging of my own (pun intended), I found out the conduit was for a new fiber to the premises service: Verizon FiOS was coming to my town. Internet service would initially be 15 Mbps down by 2 Mbps up (which was later bumped to 20 Mbps down and 5 Mbps up for the same price). 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. As a side note, my TV service at the time was DirecTV (via satellite) to the two TVs we have.

Verizon FiOS DSL Network Layout image 1 0f 1 thumb

About a year or so later, Verizon started offering FiOS TV service. I switched from DirecTV to FiOS TV. I really liked DirecTV (via Satellite) except for one major issue, and that was whenever it rained or snowed heavily, DirecTV got washed/snowed out. Of course, when it's raining or snowing like that, it is a prime time to watch some TV - except I couldn't. FiOS TV wasn't all hugs and puppies either, though. After only about one month, I ditched the Verizon (Motorola) DVR for a pair of single-channel cable cards and a TiVo Series 3 DVR. Perhaps I felt had to rebel a little. More likely, it was that the Motorola DVR crashed daily, lost programs, lost programming, etc. The second time that DVR crashed during the Superbowl game, I knew it had to go. I've upgraded the TiVo and started using a single dual-channel cable card. I love my TiVo DVR.

I stuck with FiOS and FiOS TV - more or less in the same form - for over a decade. My kids went from being little to teenagers to out on their own, so many devices came and went along the way. My speed eventually went to 25 Mbps down/up. The following are just a couple of phases along the way. The first is from September 2012 and the second is from December 2015. The latter one is the last one before things started changing again.

Verizon FiOS DSL Network Layout in 2012 image 1 of 2 thumb
Verizon FiOS DSL Network Layout in 2012 image 1 of 2 thumb

In January 2016, I moved my web and email server to Linode, and changed from business to residential FiOS. That gave me twice the speed (50 Mbps down/up) for 40% of the cost (which had risen to $125 over the years.) That meant giving up my fixed IP address, but I really didn't need it any more. I had looked into hosting my email and web some place other than my basement for years. The cost went from prohibitively expensive (hundreds of dollars / month) to no-brainer cheap (tens of dollars / month). We also got rid of our landline telephone service as well. From the perspective of my home network, it would seem like things were getting simpler.

Verizon Residential FiOS DSL Network Layout (2016) image 1 0f 1 thumb

I still have Verizon FiOS Internet service as of this writing (September 2017), but we ditched FiOS TV, and replaced it with a pair of Roku Ultras and PlayStation Vue. FiOS TV's cost kept going up, plus the fees and other charges. Adding equipment rental on top of that plus paying for TiVo monthly programming totaled to about $127 / month. Playstation Vue is $40 / month. We're still in the honeymoon period, but so far it's mostly all good. We have seen a few Loading, please wait type screens. I have also added more phones, Amazon Echo Dots, a Tap and original Echo. Also an Ecobee thermostat, Android tablet, SteamLink, Harmony Hub, and so on. I ended up having to increase the range of DHCP addresses. I changed to using the DHCP server to allocate IP addresses based on MAC addresses. That lets me have DHCP addresses that are "fixed" to known devices while leaving a bunch open for visiting devices such as the my kids cell phones. The following diagram I find almost scary.

Verizon Residential FiOS DSL Network Layout (2017) image 1 0f 1 thumb

My speed is now 75/75 Mbps down/up. (The speeds I have had at one time or another include: 384 Kbs up/down, 512 Kbps up/down, 768 Kbps up/down, 1.5 Mbps down / 384 Kbps up, 3 Mbps down / 768 Kbps up, 15 Mbps down / 2  Mbps up, 20 Mbps down / 5 Mbps up, 25 Mbps down/up, 50 Mbps down/up, and 75 Mbps down/up.) My firewall machine is still a Linux box - although Ubuntu now rather than RedHat. I only use it as a firewall/router (iptables), SSH server, DNS server and DHCP server for the internal LAN. At this point, Verizon provides my cell phones and Internet service. I was docked to the Verizon mothership for decades, but now, they provide much less. I wonder if they are as worried as I think they should be?

Book Author: 
Craig Prall