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Wednesday, February 22, 2012

A grassroots network built on a $99 Ethernet card deal

I've mentioned my school's network before. Before the evil school district people moved in and took over, it was a grassroots effort run by a couple of teachers and a few helpful students. It was all done on a shoestring budget. We got by on donations, like free copies of BSD/386 (later BSD/OS) and even occasional sysadmin help from the good folks at BSDI.

We did have one snag, though: we needed Ethernet cards. Lots of them. Back in those days, they were still relatively expensive, and were really the biggest obstacle to getting people online. There were lots of local businesses who would gladly dump their XT and AT grade machines on us as an easy donation. Those systems may have been old and slow, but that didn't matter when they were being used as glorified terminals running telnet to our Unix box. The problem was that none of them came with network cards.

Somehow, we discovered a neat thing: SMC had a program where they would ship you two of their "Ultra combo" (twisted pair + thinnet) ISA cards for $99. This was far cheaper than anything else we could buy at the time, but there was a catch: any given person could only use that deal once!

Again, the grassroots thing saved us. Lots of teachers wanted to get "online" so they could do e-mail from their classrooms. It was far better than going home and fighting busy signals to dial in. As a result, they started ordering the combo card packs to their own houses, and would then bring the cards to school.

We'd reimburse them from our limited budget, and then they'd get a priority installation of that card in a recycled machine in their classroom. I was a teacher's assistant for the computer lab at the time, so my job was to load packet drivers and NCSA Telnet onto the machine. Then I'd push it out there on a cart and get things going.

At that teacher's classroom, I'd set it up and plug things in. You could never be sure where their network connection would be relative to the desk, so they always needed a custom "drop cable". We didn't have the kind of money to pay for ready-made Ethernet cables, so I carried around a 1000' box of category 3 cable, crimpers, and 8P8C connectors (aka "RJ45s", but that's a jack). I wound up learning the color codes by sheer repetition. I would later discover they had names: TIA/EIA 568A and B.

I'd usually wind up having to do this while a classroom full of my peers looked on and wondered just what I was up to with all of the crazy nerd stuff. I just stayed quiet and tried not to interrupt class, then ducked out once done. Back in the lab, I'd use a root shell which had been opened for me to update our DNS files with the new station's IP address and hostname. Then I'd update the serial number, poke BIND, and that was it.

As for that second SMC card? It would go to some other teacher. By repeating this process, we wound up covering a fair amount of the faculty in the space of a year. I got to meet a bunch of teachers who I might not have talked to otherwise, and made a lot of them happy by installing those computers. Truly, those were good times.

SMC Ultra card