Technology We’re Thankful For: Routers and Switches

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If you went up to a person on the street 50 years ago and told them, “In 50 years, we’ll be flying to work on great flaming jetpacks,” they might have believed you. After all, we went to the moon 47 years ago.

If you told them, instead, that in 50 years’ time we will carry in our pockets a shared global library of all the world’s information, they would have roared with laughter. Who could carry the weight of a book containing all the world’s wisdom?

Yet today, more than three billion people now have access to the Internet, which is not only a shared global library, but also a global community, meeting space, marketplace, and more. It’s an all-around awesome invention that is often taken for granted.

How did it get here? Who built it? It’s a mystery to many, much like the Pyramids of Giza.

Who should we thank for the state of routing and switching?

Here, we take a look at a few of the technological heroes that made the magic of the Internet possible.

Telephone and the Telegraph

Yes. Routing and switching begins with the telephone. It makes sense, right? Telephone switchboard?

A fellow by the name of Tivadar Puskas invented the first telephone exchange system in 1877 while working for Thomas Edison.

The telephone took a good few decades to mature into a viable public service. But once it became widespread, the groundwork for much of the internet was complete before the internet even existed.

Thank you, Tivadar. You couldn’t have had any idea that your first switchboard, built from “carriage bolts, handles from teapot lids, and bustle wire,” would lay the groundwork for the internet.

The IMP

Strictly speaking, the internet isn’t one big network. It’s a network of networks. It enables you to send a message along one network, through another, and another, until your message arrives at the right address, regardless of location. Network sorcery, in other words.

During the rise of the telephone age, the problem of sending calls to the right addresses was solved by human operators who manually switched connections all day. It wasn’t an ideal solution by any means.

With the birth of computers, the problem was more easily solved by giving each computer an IP address, which is like a phone number for a computer, and then letting machines carry the message along the right path for a connection.

We now call these machines routers and switches, and the first real router ever created was a special computer called the IMP (Interface Message Processor), which sold for just under $10,000 in 1969, when work began on the Internet’s experimental predecessor, ARPANET.

The IMP was known as a “gateway,” and it was designed to route messages between disparate networks across the US. It was big, expensive, and offered basic functionality, but the concept of decentralized routing via small, semi-intelligent demons — er, devices — placed between computer networks has worked pretty well for the internet so far.

Thank you to the entire IMP team.

The Domain Name System

Remember what you had for lunch yesterday? Don’t worry, most people don’t. The Domain Name System is a giant table of records existing on decentralized servers around the world that act as a mental crutch for our fallible human memory.

DNS works by changing the words you type in your browser (e.g., google.com) into the IP address of the computer hosting that website or resource. Simple. But brilliant.

We could thank many people for DNS, but let’s give big thanks to Jon Postel, an internet pioneer, who originally manually assigned addresses to ARPANET computers. Yes. He had a text document with every single domain name in the world. Think about that.

Bonus: You should take some time read more about Jon Postel. His fingerprints are all over the history of the internet.

Packet Switching

Thunk up by computer scientists Donald Davies and Paul Baran in the 60s, packet switching is a clever method of routing messages that we use every day on the internet.

With packet switching, a message to be sent over the Internet is chopped up into smaller packets of data, each with their own header (containing info on where the packet is going), and payload (a part of the entire message).

Once the message is split into packets, each packet can now merrily go on its way to its final destination, taking whichever network route is operational, or fastest. The fortunate twist is that most packets don’t take the same route, so the network load is distributed across multiple networks.

So, why do we care? Because if there was no packet switching, traffic flowing through the Internet would slow to a standstill.

Thank you, Paul and Donald.

TCP/IP

TCP/IP is truly the meat-and-potatoes of what makes networking work so well. These are the core protocols that lay down the laws of communication between computers, network hardware, and software on the Internet.

Serious thought and theory went into the making of TCP/IP back when the ARPANET was being developed, and we can thank Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn for authoring TCP/IP in 1974, along with DARPA’s Information Processing Technology Office (IPTO).

Long live IPv4!

Thank you, Vint Cerf. You’re still looking good in a vest. And thank you, Bob Kahn for leading the IPTO to victory.

If you’re looking for the perfect gift for yourself (or your Internet history-minded friends), pick up Katie Hafner’s Where Wizards Stay Up Late from your favorite bookseller.

It goes into the life and time of Jon Postel, Vint Cert, Robert Kahn, Paul Baran, and the rest of the Internet pioneers.

We’re thankful for all the technology that brought us to modern-day routes and switches! Show your gratitude to the pioneers of this amazing technology by sneaking in a little training in their honor during your Thanksgiving holiday.

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