Naughty Networking…

So, now you know a bit about the historical run-up to our attempts at becoming a bona-fide ISP (Internet Service Provider). Our home-schooled education on all-things bulletin-boards and networking wasn’t quite complete though, as our time at university was about to contribute greatly to the level and depth of knowledge we had when it came to practically implementing a secure, multi-user network. It wasn’t really the time we spent in lectures that helped (althought they didn’t hurt, per se), but the time we spent tinkering around with the home-grown network that sprouted up within our erstwhile (student) community. Let’s just say that it was a perfect example of combining theory with practice. How did we do it, you may ask? Well, we cut our teeth on networking and the very technologies needed to implement a basic Internet service by stringing Ethernet cables between each others’ bedroom windows at the University dorm we lived in (R.I.P. Ranmoor House, since demolished and replaced with an almost-identical set of buildings, only this time around including the luxury of en-suite bathrooms for each resident). Incidentally, this is how we all first met, too: through a common interest in computers and technology while in our final years studying at Sheffield University. As a residential dorm ‘tutor’ at the time, I was afforded the privilege of a university extension in my tutor’s flat, and could make internal extension-to-extension calls (at no charge) to a net-connected RedHat Linux host (affectionately named after ‘PINGU’, the cute East-European cartoon character). We had very cheekily managed to establish a home for PINGU on-campus, and plug it (him?) directly in to JANET (the Joint Academic NETwork). I then pestered and persuaded a [hitherto unnamed] professor to allow the host to be located permanently in his on-campus office, with PINGU’s modem connected to a spare telephone extension, and the network interface to a spare BNC network socket (BNC was the 10-base T predecessor to the more commonly used present day RJ-45 connectors) to bridge us over on to the ‘net’; thereby providing us all with 24/7 shared internet access at our dorm. It was 1996, and perhaps we were one of the very first on-net halls of residence in the country at the time, who knows? Before long, the network began to grow with Ethernet cables dangling between bedroom windows, and then network segment cables trailing from one main residential block to another; all terminating to a central hub placed in the loft space of a central block. The cables were very unassuming, with the dorm staff just presuming that they were makeshift washing lines (the fact that washing could not possibly hang on vertical cables being lost on them). Either that, or they fully realised what was going on, and decided to turn a blind eye to our juvenile shenanigans. In the end, we had our LAN running there for a good number of months, oblivious to the fact that it was in fact an unofficial contraband network, no doubt running contrary to all of the terms and conditions of use for the JANET network (which was, and still is, for serious academic use only). But what the heck – we were students, not doing anybody any harm, and learning along the way…that’s what universities are for, after all, right? It was quite a feat at the time, but when I think about it now, we had unwittingly created our own private, fully functioning LAN/WAN, complete with bulletin board, firewall, user accounts, secure RADIUS authentication, e-mail, and of course, its own MUDs (Multi-User Dungeons): all the elements needed (well, maybe not the MUDs) to create a full-service internet provider at the time.

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