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back to article Ethernet at 40: Its daddy reveals its turbulent youth

When Bob Metcalfe, the prime mover behind the invention of Ethernet, recently visited the site of that invention, Xerox's Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), The Reg had the opportunity to sit down with him to discuss the history of Ethernet, its advantages over Token Ring, and IBM's perfidy. Metcalfe was in town to promote a two- …

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Facepalm

Re: The Classic Idiot...

Sales rep calls from the demo room... Hugely important meet, net gone down, just as he was telling the prospective customers how good it was.

Yes, we were wondering why, too! Turned out he'd disconnected the cable from the back of the demo-room machine to show them.

An installation I did... Customer had done their own cabling. Connected all my new gear up... No network. A minute's thought, and I realised that, as I'd been attaching machines, I had not seen a single terminator, anywhere. Yes... He thought that thin ethernet should be an unbroken ring! Luckily I always had a tool box full of useful things.

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Boffin

Worries for Workgroups

Ah, that thing. Windows 3.11 with DOS 6.22, which for some weird reason broke compatibility with all the stuff in windows 3.1 and DOS 6.2. I kept the 3.1/6.2 combo because it wasn't worth doing the upgrade.

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Wouldnt mind.....

...a little bit of Token Ring's efficiency creeping into Ethernet.

Always feel with Ethernet I have a huge V8 Muscle car that's always stuck in first gear.

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Re: Wouldnt mind.....

Well you have that right now. There are switches now on Ethernet. The issue everyone had with Ethernet is gone, there are no collisions any more. What you have now are fairly laminar streams of data.

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Ring was too expensive

£200+ for one Token Ring card, £800 for a MAU. Geez. I remember rewiring a Token-ring office with ethernet for less than the price of ONE additional Token Ring card.

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Boffin

Re: Ring was too expensive

Even the cabling was expensive with token ring. Our office used it for a few years, and the cables were as fat as your index finger and had a huge clip-on connector on the end. Serious grumbles if a pin broke because someone moved their PC with the connector attached.

I seem to remember that it wasn't strictly star topology - that you could do something to daisy chain devices together and then back to the network run, but it's been almost 20 years since I had daily exposure to that stuff - don't remember the details.

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Re: Ring was too expensive

@Pet Peeve.

You could connect MAUs together by using main link connectors...

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Boffin

Re: Ring was too expensive

IIRC Token Ring was actually *RING* topology, hence the name.

The other ring topology network I can remember is LocalTalk, which for years was what our home network had.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: Ring was too expensive

Like many of the comments here time has dulled the memory.

"the cables were as fat as your index finger and had a huge clip-on connector on the end"

That sounds like thick ethernet. One fairly common approach was to run the vertical backbone on thick ethernet but distribute on each floor using token ring. The site I saw where the network was a real support nightmare they did it the other way round, token ring backbone, ethernet on the floor - delivering the worst of both.

Other comments here are comparing token ring with ethernet AFTER the time when ethernet was seriously expensive and a right PITA to implement and support. Ethernet got much faster, much cheaper and more resilient, token ring only got a bit faster and the cost didn't shift so it ended up relatively expensive.

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Facepalm

Re: Ring was too expensive

Nope, that's good old IBM Type 1, or possibly Type 6, with those unisex plugs on each end. Even the wallports were just bits of plastic that accepted a unisex plug in the back.

UTP came somewhat later to token-ring. Originally everything hooked up using those connectors. Making 'em up was a bitch too. In theory, as they snapped together it should have been simple. No crimping, screwing or any other "ing"s required. In practice, getting all the bits in the right place and keeping them there while snapping the casing together was like juggling six balls while sat on a unicycle.

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Re: Ring was too expensive

IIRC, the Token Ring cost included a license...for the MAC code, whereas Ethernet MAC code was so simple it didn't need a license. TR MACs needed all kinds of code to manage token forwarding, master election and such. Ethernet "just worked", although it worked a lot better when we got away from coax and onto twisted pair...

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Re: Ring was too expensive

Er, rubbish. A MAC code is a MAC code, all it has to be is unique. You could assign your own with TR, if you really had nothing better to do with your life, so what they actually were was irrelevant.

The cost was in the intelligence of the cards. Every token-ring node can act as a master (first one on the ring gets it until such time as something you've designated as master turns up and takes it) and also performs diagnostic monitoring on the upstream device, generating alerts if necessary.

Also, the TR protocol has the capability to route between LANs built in, which adds to the complexity. Once a route is established, the end nodes are expected to address that route correctly themselves. The source-routing bridges only supply transport and discovery services.

Ethernet cards were dumb and much cheaper.

Upsides: TR can always tell you exactly where a fault has occurred and usually exactly what the fault is. They'll also tell you exactly what's where and when it appeared there. Finally, adding rings to a network is trivial as it works it all out itself when a new bridge shows up.

Downside: cost.

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Happy

Re: Ring was too expensive

I bought some Attachmate Token Ring cards when working at Suna Alliance. Two of those cards had identical MAC codes. You could almost hear the beaconing out in the car park. With two identical MACs the network monitor could not identify where the error was. Chaos.

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IBM NHBR

I joined IBM in 2000 and they were still using token ring at North Harbour. It wasn't until a year or two later that the whole site was converted to ethernet. Pretty shocking!

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Happy

Ah, sunny Cosham.

I work for a telco who supplies services to IBM North Harbour. Luckily I only worked onyour WAN links, so never had to work with Thicknet or TR. I do remember the banks & banks of patch panels there though. I thought they were mains cables the fist time I saw them.

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Go

Ethernet Vs Ring Practical Vs Theoretical.

Rings have 2 path failures to isolate a node and calculable maximum latency. Handy if you're implementing an aircraft flight control system in a high noise environment.

But IRL most nodes did not want to talk all the time and traffic was quite "bursty" (like the print job to a printer) and the EMI resistance did not need to be important.

Like Betamax Vs VHS?

Except current Ethernets are 100x better than the original.

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Devil

What? No bashing...

on account of the Ayn Rand comments? Is this the same group that was gleeing over that born-again idiot quitting his job yesterday?

Not so brave when someone rich a mighty has a similar mental handicap eh.

So when your boss want's a vanity number on his wage slip, you would be bending over backwards?

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Megaphone

Re: What? No bashing...

It's troll bait, and it looks like we caught one.

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Re: What? No bashing...

What? No bashing on account of the Ayn Rand comments?

It makes this discussion FCC rated.

Must be able to sensibly accept interference, should not cause interference. Yup. Works for me.

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Anonymous Coward

Re: What? No bashing...

Metcalfe complains quite a bit about IBM's FUD, but he himself in his InfoWorld columns during the '90s made it a point to persistently refer to "open source" as "open sores", and championed the work of libertarian economists who claimed it was not viable as a development or economic model. Some 20 years later, I would say he and those economists have been proven wrong, and by no small measure.

Open source succeeded for much the same reasons Ethernet did, but Metcalfe let his own ideological fundamentalism blind him to its potential and opportunities. And to place Ayn Rand, a writer of ideological fiction, ahead of the great Anglo-Scots secular philosophers like Smith, Locke, Mill, and Hume, is typical of the American tendency to confuse entertainment with actual thought.

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Boffin

Errors and omissions

12Mb Token Ring, er 16Mb I think! Also Early Token Release fixed the lost token issue but really it was all down to cost once the PC CPU had enough spare cycles to do in software what the TR NIC did in hardware. Funny there was no mention of ATM, that was a great technology with LAN/WAN QoS/COS all built in at layer 2 and the chips were much more like an Ethernet chip in production costs. Also there was no mention of Madge networks a British company who at one time were nearly as big as 3Com and had over 80% of the Token Ring market. They also pioneered switched TR and 100Mb TR in the early 1990s. Finally Type 1 is alive and well in some of our older buildings running 100Mb FDX Ethernet and the rats can't chew through it ;-)

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Re: Errors and omissions

I worked for Madge from 1997 to 2000. We had the best technology if you ask me. I did tech support for the token ring cards, and switches, at their American office, in San Jose California. It was sad to see the switch to Ethernet kill our company slowly each quarter. Even more sad was when we bought our only non-IBM competitor, Olicom in 1999. They were our arch enemies, but at least we had enemies. Shortly after that, I was laid off, and ironically went to work for 3Com in Santa Clara. 3Com made some pretty stupid moves let me tell you (Audrey anyone?? This good for nothing, over priced piece of crap was given away to everybody on Oprah's show in 2000...... and Kerbango, for anybody who wanted an internet radio, that had the sound quality of a clock radio) The entire 3Com campus was HUGE, I believe it's Marvell now. Good times, good times

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Won't work?

Back in those days, I can remember the 'Ethernet won't work' pitches. I also remember the TCP won't work, HTTP/HTML won't work, Windows-OS/2-Unix-whatever won't work. Blah, blah, blah.

The most interesting thing was that it was always the same group of people at my company that ran around with these pitches. Some sort of anti-marketing shills that vendors knew would take a few bucks to spread their propaganda white papers around. Pretty soon, the smarter folks started recognizing them and, whenever they came around, there were always coughs of "Bullsh*t!" behind our hands.

Some of them are still around and at least one major prominent company appears to be dealing with the fallout of bad engineering decisions pushed down from the MBA crowd. Some people never learn.

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Boffin

Re: Won't work?

Oh, heck yes. The network guys that wired our new building with token ring did it totally because it could run SNA, and would save a fortune on cabling the mainframe printers that were all over the building.

SNA was so overloaded with adminium that most people just said "forget it" when there was a request for a new terminal or printer in an area - they just made do walking a little farther or hanging out in the "tube room" all day instead of their desks. Even once we had the ring net set up, it was a headache to get changes made. Another thing I remember was when PCs first started getting used to replace 3278/9s, you had to buy a special network card to hook up to the old coax net, because the SNA gods refused to put workstations on the token ring SNA bridge. When they yanked all that crap out a few years later and put in ethernet, it was a very good day.

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10 > 4

I saw RM speak in Toronto about 1989. He wrote 10 >4 on the whiteboard and began explained why Ethernet was better than Token Ring. At that time the metality was "You can't go wrong if you buy IBM". I remember one large internations spice company that went down the whole IBM route. AS 400, Token ring, OS/2 applications and tons of custom development. They lost millions and finally ripped it all out except for the AS400 on Ethernet and Windows on PCs.

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IBM's standards setting abilities

Ethernet no doubt contributed to IBM's loss of standards setting abilities, but I always thought that the real hit was when IBM couldn't come out with a 386-based system fast enough, and Compaq took over defining what an IBM PC-compatible system was.

That being said, IBM's token ring, and associated SNA technology, certainly deserves the scorn heaped upon it. My first full-time job was writing a driver so that a Sun 2's serial chip could operate in SDLC mode so we could send LU6.2 verbs to an IBM printer, and thus print on an IBM SNA-based printer from a Sun 2 workstation.

Why? Because our University got free IBM printers at the time.

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Re: IBM's standards setting abilities

Yes it's odd looking back now how IBM believed that it could go 802.5'ish and the world would jump off the Ethernet v2 bandwagon (which was morphing into the 802.3 Ethernet bandwagon) and follow it's lead.

Yes 802.5 (like 802.4) has some good features, but for most deployments the benefits didn't justify the costs.

I'm not so sure about the specific lack of a 386-based (PC) system, as the total lack of any real desktop solution to compete with Sun, Digital, Apollo, Torch, SGI, etc. etc. all of which shipped with Ethernet (and TCP/IP) as standard. But I agree IBM very quickly lost the ability to define what "IBM PC-compatible" meant - any one remember MCA?

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Megaphone

You try and tell the young people of today that..

...and they won't believe you (4 Yorkshire men, Monty Python).

I lost skin, literally, on Token Ring, Ethernet (the major contenders) and ARCnet/Star net.

Back in the day, just as the IBM PS2 was shipping, we had a couple of IBM PC-LAN/ LAN Manager networks that used Token Ring. The performance was generally very good on things like shared database access. The bad points were the cost of the cards, cabling and hubs; and the thickness of the cabling (It looked as though you moor a boat with it). We had a "proper" installation done by our telecoms/networking engineers over a weekend to replace the ad-hoc taped cables snaking around the building that we had put in to get the system working. On Monday, nothing worked - The engineers had used normal twisted pair POTS cabling. When asked why, the lead engineer said "Oh, your thick IBM stuff is very difficult to install, it wont even bend around corners. It's just twisted pair - Telephone cable is twisted pair, so it doesn't get interference." - A week later it was replaced with proper cabling, but they were the last Token Ring systems we could get our internal engineers to install.

10BASE2 - Really easy to set up. No hub needed, you could use 10BASE5 trunk to get longer lengths than 600ft. The bad news was that the cheap Netware NE1000/2000 cards that we used on client PCs tended to jabber and flood the network with malformed packets - So, Bob Metcalf, collisions WERE a problem. Other "features" of 10BASE2 networks were office staff moving a desk and taking down the entire network by damaging or unplugging the cable; terminating one end by connecting the cable directly to the card without using a T-piece; and noise from not grounding a terminator (or grounding both terminators and getting an earth loop).

A simple cost/performance benefit would generally come out in favour of Ethernet. In the end we had standardized on DEC, *NIX, Netware and PC equipment, so other than having to connect to the odd large IBM system, cheap Ethernet worked fine.

Shouty icon... Old Ethernet engineers know why.

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Coat

Re: You try and tell the young people of today that..

.. and they won't believe it was At Last the 1948 Show it featured on...

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Anonymous Coward

IMHO, Ethernet *really* got usable with switching.

Naturally, some fairly shouty protocols sometimes undid the traffic segmentation (hello, Microsoft) but in general switching has propelled Ethernet along as a fairly happy medium.

The only challenge is segment surveillance (for network intrusion detection etc), you need a SPAN port to see it all..

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Re: IMHO, Ethernet *really* got usable with switching.

Well I wouldn't say "usable", but switching certainly turned Ethernet from "it's cheap" to "it's cheap and it works quite well".

I still remember my first workplace. They had some fairly nifty managed hubs, which could be segmented and connected to the switch we had. If only someone would have taken the time to properly re-wire the patch cables, there would have been a 8 fold increase in performance. But still, 20 computers hammering away on 10 MBit shared with file shares and dBase databases still worked acceptably well.

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Happy

I love this kind artcile

thank you.

And I can't help to draw parallels with today situation.

In my youth. I thought token ring was better, because it was more organized and fair (to the clients). And that coax thing. Oh boy!

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We're a bunch of bandwidth-hungry buggers now!

I've recently installed some 10GbE LAN-PHY rings for a client so their designers can use realtime CAD modelling tools between three sites in the Midlands. They are using this 10GbE directly to their workstations.

Hopefully they are hosting torrent files too......

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Well the CCC is hosting an anual congress

And they usually have around 20-30 Gigabits per second Internet connectivity. Despite of having around 6k people now (each one coming with at least a notebook) they never manage to fill their line.

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Anonymous Coward

IBM RS/6000 Marketing Meet

We'd started selling the new RS/6000s and I went to a tech briefing. The guy half giggled and half blushed as he explained, yes, this IBM box came with Ethernet as standard.

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Boffin

Re: IBM RS/6000 Marketing Meet

Though it isn't the Ethernet we all think about these days. It had a fugly AUI port instead of either coax or RJ45. I managed our sole remaining RS/6000 workstation at our college computer lab during the early 2000's and the AUI-to-cat5 transceiver was constantly being fought for between the RS/6000 users and the CCNA dudes (the Cisco routers only had AUI ports). Yeech!

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Windows

Re: IBM RS/6000 Marketing Meet

"and the AUI-to-cat5 transceiver was constantly being fought for"

In recent years I kept a stock of discarded AUI 10base-T "fag packets" in my drawer. Every so often someone would move an essential old machine off its old AUI cable - and find they couldn't connect it to the new network. I even kept some short AUI cables - as sometimes even a small "fag packet" proved too bulky to attach directly.

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Oh dear

I was already starting to dislike this guy by page 2 of the interview. Then I got to the bottom of page 3...

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Anonymous Coward

Token Ring 4/16

I started out in my networking career mid 90s at Exxon Chemical. TR was the game with SNA and IBM mainframes.

I have spent the last 10 years re-designing ISP networks away from SDH to Ethernet-only (not Ethernet over SDH) and MPLS P2P or VPLS.

Good work!

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Happy

My first ever job was for an insurance company. OS/2 running SNA over Token Ring. I still remember the feeling of panic stood in front of a rack full of Madge ringswitches, listening to the "Bzzzzzzt" of the relays as the whole lot came crashing down! Back at the time we were ordering in Compaq hardware with built-in 10/100 PHY and then spending another £150 on a Token Ring card for each device. Back then a 10/100 Ethernet switch (unmanaged, naturally) would cost about the same as one card. We tried to set up a PoC in the office but couldn't source any money for a router.

Anyone remember HSTR? 100Mbit - cutting edge back then. Just a shame it used to fail about once a month.

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Anonymous Coward

"History is written by the winners"

Token ring had the advantage that it was a ring so a single cable break was not a problem, E'net was, (way back), less resilient, backbone needed thick E'net cables (near 1cm diameter) with a mimimum curve radius of - don't remember, 1 metre? Signal distance was a big constraint too.

When E'net went twisted pair and jumped to 100Mbit T'ring was too late with bringing on competitive speed.

I heard a great explanation of T'ring vs E'net: In character (not in actual origin) T'ring was British, E'net American. The "British" T'ring node would have a conversation like: The token has arrived, I am invited to speak, but I have nothing to say so I'll pass the opportunity (and the decanter of Port) to my neighbour at the dinner table. The "American" E'net nodes all just shout as soon as an idea comes into their heads and the one that shouts loudest wins.

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KA

Re: "History is written by the winners"

T-R was logically a ring, but wired as hub-and-spoke. When a spoke was broken the hub had to detect the problem and bypass that node in order to maintain the logical ring integrity.

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Joke

Ah token-ring...

...the One True Ring (My Precious)!!

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WTF?

Killing token-ring.

All well and good, but overlooks one very important point. Ethernet never killed token-ring, IBM did that for them.

The chipset problem was alluded to in the article. The problem here was that if you wanted to use any of the IBM software (e.g. the PC terminal emulators) you had to use cards with the honest-to-god, gen-u-ine IBM TROPIC chipset (that's the big, square metal thing on an IBM card). Nothing else would do. For all other purposes, third-party cards would do just fine.

IBM, in their infinite wisdom, only ever produced "real" IBM cards as 8 bit ISA cards which, from the price, seemed to be assembled from Unicorn vellum laid on an Unobtanium substrate. Eventually they decided to license TROPIC and the result was the excellent (and sensibly priced) 3com Tokenlink III. As usual with IBM, it was too little too late and Ethernet had its feet firmly under the table by then.

I'm afraid that all the alleged FUD was actually, er, true. You only needed four PCs running DOOM and chaingunning the fuck out of each other to prove that 4meg token-ring shat all over Ethernet for throughput under load. TR gave you a usable (if slow) network with that going on, Ethernet cacked itself on the spot. One of TRs best features was that it degraded gracefully under heavy load. 16meg (that's 16, not 12!!) TR just flew in comparison to Ethernet.

Token-ring had diagnostics and redundancy built in, which is why the cards were pricier than their Ethernet counterparts. Yes, it was entirely possible to have the thing give up without your having a clue what had gone wrong, but if you weren't running something with the capability to diagnose and act on beacon frames and you hadn't made that the designated ring controller, it was entirely your fault! The concept of the token "falling out" is actually an old joke. If you do manage to axe the machine that has the token at the time, it's NAUN (Nearest Active Upstream Neighbour) spots the problem and generates a new token containing a beacon frame to advise the ring controller of the change. This happens in milliseconds, not minutes.

There certainly is a load of FUD around all this, but he's the one pushing it!

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Happy

Re: Killing token-ring.

IMHO, the thing that killed Token Ring was the cost of the license for the MAC code and the fact that it couldn't run on CAT5. Whereas Ethernet was truly asynchronous and had standardised signalling waveforms carefully designed to work on unshielded TP, Token Ring never quite got to that point (as the clock jitter requirement precluded bandwith limited waveforms on the wire).

I spent much time at 3Com, trying to get 16 meg Token Ring switches to work reliably at maximum cable lengths (and then to get them to pass FCC emissions testing). IMHO, it was never to be. Meanwhile, Ethernet over twisted pair was heading for 100 megabit/sec. Game over.

//I did manage to implement a parser for the source routing field in a CPLD, so there was that, at least...

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Re: Killing token-ring.

No "cost per MAC", see answer above.

I ran 16meg TR over CAT5[1]. The cable length specs were conservative, to say the least. This only ever failed once. Some contractors moved an office wall and spliced(!) the CAT5 that ran along it. My reactions on finding the splice were unprintable. Suffice to say they revolved around the contractors, their parentage, their uncanny resemblance to various parts of human anatomy and what I'd do to them if I ever got them in a room with a fire axe.

[1] 3com cards and Andrews' MAUs IIRC.

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Bring back the Vampire Tap!

That was the only fun part of networking.

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I used to work for an outfit that used token ring.

They ceased to exist soon after that.

The joke around the office was sending each newbies looking for the "dropped packet" in the token ring.

Yeah, they were that lame...

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