Computer Chronicles Revisited 95 — Grapevine and EasyLAN

Local area networks were a regular topic during early seasons of Computer Chronicles. In a first-season episode from 1983, 3Com’s Ethernet was still “under discussion” as a possible industry networking standard. In 1985, IBM tried–and ultimately failed–to gain control of the standard with Token Ring. Now, with this next look at networking from November 1987, the topic had grown so much in complexity that this would be the first of a two-part series. This first episode focused on networking technology for IBM PCs and compatibles, while the next program addressed the state of LANs on the Macintosh.

Stewart Cheifet opened the program by comparing a computer network to a television network. He showed this week’s co-host, George Morrow, two organizational charts: one for PBS and the other for a corporate local area network (LAN). Cheifet asked Morrow if the introduction of Intel 80386-based PCs meant it was now easier and cheaper to get into a network. Morrow said it sure was. He said this new generation of machines would move the price-performance points of network systems. The 386 processors were powerful enough and the input/output buses were designed to move data on-and-off a network and onto a disk very fast.

Cheifet asked about the Macintosh II. Morrow said it was also a very capable networking machine. The Macintosh’s Motorola 68000 processor family was just as capable as the 386. And the new system bus on the Mac II was also quite fast.

San Francisco Suburb Moved from Pneumatic Tubes to Token Ring

For her first remote segment, Wendy Woods narrated B-roll footage taken at the City of Concord, California’s city hall, which used an IBM Token Ring network running on a Burroughs Corporation mainframe. Woods joked that the closest thing to a network this small San Francisco suburb used to have was a pneumatic tube system–a reliable but limited solution to the problem of moving documents between different offices. But today, computer networks were transforming city government department-by-department.

LeRoy Tavares, the microcomputer coordinator for the City of Concord, told Woods that initially it was “desktop productivity” needs, such as putting out word processing documents in a consistent format, as well as preparing budget spreadsheets and list maintenance, which spurred the move towards computer networking. Typically, Tavares said each department had files and records that weren’t that relevant to the other departments. So it was useful to have a means of centrally accessing all of those records without the need for keeping boxes of paper files and their associated indexes around in separate departments.

Woods said that at the city clerk’s office, the public works department, and central word processing, Token Ring networks had simplified the complexity of storing, finding, and changing documents that were handled by many people. The bureaucratic process seemed well-suited to the network’s functions. Tavares said that for example, if there was a city code violation, you might have different people reporting, recording, and resolving the matter. So it was useful to have an electronic system to look everything up.

Concord’s networks were not yet interlinked, Woods noted. Each department had its own system and file server. In some departments, where the network’s use was limited to transferring files and sharing peripherals, computers were linked together using just a simple RS-232 smart connector. And while most workers had adapted to the network system, some paper backup files were still used.

Woods added that making user software as friendly as the traditional index cards used in paper filing hadn’t always been easy. Tavares said applications designed for the network weren’t too difficult. But applications designed for a single-user network with added multi-user functionality required some “creativity,” since many features of the network could only be activated at the command prompt level. He said the next step was for software developers to come up with a consistent look and feel that made sense to people. Tavares cited the telephone system as an example. You were used to the idea of a prefix, telephone number, and extension to identify individuals within a telephone network. That was a metaphor people understood.

Distributed Networking Over Grapevine

Kenneth Scott joined Cheifet and Morrow in the studio for the next segment. Scott was president of Computer Pathways, Inc., which developed a LAN product called Grapevine. Also present was Computer Pathway’s vice president for marketing, who did not speak but was simply there to operate another computer as part of the in-studio demonstration.

Morrow asked Scott to explain Grapevine. Scott said the name was chosen because it suggested people should know how to use the product. Grapevine was designed to be a LAN product for the typical PC user, i.e., someone who used a computer for spreadsheets and word processing.

Morrow noted that Grapevine’s approach to networking was different than the traditional file-server model. Scott said Grapevine offered the ability to put the server function into each computer on the network. Each workstation could therefore act as a server for any other machine on the network. It was therefore a distributed network.

Scott then provided a demo of Grapevine. There were three machines–all XT- and AT-compatibles–setup in the studio running Grapevine. The other Computer Pathways executive ran a word processing program on one machine, while Scott had a Compaq Portable running a database and a third PC on the desk running Lotus 1-2-3. Scott noted that you could have up to 50 machines (or “nodes”) spread out over a distance of up to 4,000 feet running on a Grapevine network.

Scott explained that networks offered the capability of sharing physical resources (like printers) and files, and provided communications between members of the network. He noted that normally you had to exit an application like 1-2-3 to bring-up network functionality. But with Grapevine, you could continue working in Lotus and access the network by pressing one key. Pressing that key brought up by a menu showing several printers that were available on the network. You could even select specific printer options, such as whether you wanted a letter- or draft-quality printout. There were additional options for showing and managing the queue for any selected device on the network.

Scott explained that Grapevine allowed for “drive substitutions,” i.e., assigning a drive letter in DOS to the other hard drives access through the distributed network. Morrow asked about the “file lockout” problem: If one user accessed a file, could another user access the same file at the same time? Scott said in a multi-user application there would be a locking provision to prevent this. But in a single-user application it was possible for both users to gain access to the file. So this was dictated by the application involved rather than Grapevine. But Grapevine did include security features so that each user could lock out their own disk drive or some portion of the drive. The user could also grant “read only” access to selected files.

Next, Scott demonstrated the e-mail functions of Grapevine. (Keep in mind, this is e-mail only within the local network.) There was a standard e-mail form that could be used to create things like inter-office memos. He added that this entire time, the computer was still running Lotus 1-2-3 in the foreground. You didn’t have to leave your application to access any of the networking functions.

Morrow noted that 1-2-3 ran under MS-DOS. So what was the relationship between Grapevine and DOS? Scott replied, “Intimate.” Elaborating further, he explained that Grapevine functioned as a RAM-resident process. It effectively functioned like a multi-tasking operating system that viewed DOS as just one “task.”

Cheifet asked about the benefits of Grapevine’s approach to networking versus the traditional, first-generation approach of using a file server. Scott said there were several advantages. One was that you avoided the congestion that was inherent with a dedicated server. With a server, the more users you had, the more traffic that flowed into the server, which degraded network performance. A second advantage to Grapevine was that it allowed you to distribute your physical resources in a more realistic and pragmatic fashion. Scott noted that his own company had about 20 users at a given time and they had yet to see any performance problems. Morrow added there was an advantage to letting a user move files they were using to their local machine rather than having to rely on a central file server.

Cheifet asked Scott to clarify exactly what came with Grapevine. Scott said it was a combination of hardware and software. The hardware was a single expansion card inserted into each PC on the network. (Morrow was impressed the Grapevine card didn’t seem as crowded as an IBM Token Ring or Ethernet board.) The actual connections could be made with either coaxial or twisted-pair cables. The software came on a single 5.25-inch floppy disk and required a system with 128KB of RAM.

Computer Associates Divided Between 3Com, Novell Networks

Wendy Woods presented her second remote report from Computer Associates International (CA), then the world’s largest software company, and the complex network it used at its offices in San Jose, California. Woods said that all of the company’s programmers, engineers, and quality control staff worked on computers networked through a 3Com LAN. This enabled the staff to program and communicate far better than if they were on standalone terminals.

Dave Montagna, CA’s vice president of engineering, told Woods that by working with the network they were able to share data. So one person could be working on a feature for a program and add that to the work done by the other programmers. The developer could then test their new code right away against the latest version that everyone else had. Quality assurance could similarly perform its own. Basically, everyone could work on the same code without having to manually copy files onto floppy disks and pass those disks along to the next person.

In addition to three file servers acting as the “traffic cops” for the department’s 70 computers, Woods said, the network also had so-called CPU servers–powerful jobs to which jobs could be off-loaded. (I believe these are now just called “build servers.”) These machines could compile code and do number-crunching, freeing a programmer’s individual machine for other tasks. Leslie Levey, a development manager at CA, told Woods that the build server included tools to track ongoing jobs, files, and provided e-mail service. Woods added that by working on a local area network, programmers received firsthand experience programming for LANs, which enhanced the 100 or more products that CA created.

In another part of the San Jose office, Woods said, customer service and accounting staff worked on a Novell-based LAN. This network tracked CA’s telephone support operation, tracking a ticket from the time of a customer’s call to its outcome. Eventually, CA wanted to link the customer support and software engineering networks. This would make it possible to share bug reports and customer suggestions for new features. Right now, this information had to be transferred between departments on paper. And despite the efficiencies of the network, programmers also relied on personal interactions to exchange ideas in face-to-face meetings.

EasyLAN Offered a Cheaper Approach to Basic Network Functionality

Bill Myers and Dick Kent joined Cheifet and Morrow for the final segment. Myers was the sales director with Server Technology in Sunnyvale, California, which produced EasyLAN. Kent was president of DLM Consultants, Inc., in Santa Clara, California.

Cheifet noted that Myers’ EasyLAN had a “zero-slot” or RS-232 approach to local area networking. What exactly was that? Myers said EasyLAn was a low-cost network alternative. But low-cost didn’t mean less functional. EasyLAN relied on RS-232 connectors, which was the serial port built-in to just about every PC and PC compatible on the market. EasyLAN used a combination of software and serial cables to create a network.

Morrow asked about EasyLAN’s capabilities with such a setup. Meyers said EasyLAN provided the “important functionalities” that users tended to look for first in a network. This included sharing expensive peripheral devices like laser printers and exchanging files. Morrow noted that EasyLAN did not, however, provide for real-time sharing of files. Myers said that was correct. But EasyLAN could run alongside another network that provided such functionality.

Cheifet turned to Kent and asked him to compare the approaches of different types of LANs. Kent said the RS-232 approach used by EasyLAN offered an advantage with respect to cost, about $100 to $200 per node. A traditional network like 3Com or Novell required network interface cards that ran about $300 to $500 each, as well as a network operating system that cost between $2,000 and $3,000. (So about $1,000 per node, Morrow observed.) The traditional networks could also run multi-user programs, which EasyLAN could not.

Morrow asked about the security of these higher-end networks. Kent said that involved two issues. The first was unauthorized access to the network and its data. The second was the integrity of the data in the event of a system crash or power outage. With respect to the latter, Kent said that anyone with a dedicated file server should have an uninterrupted power supply (UPS) to protect against a brownout and blackout. A UPS would give you at least 20 minutes of emergency power to safely power down the server. If you didn’t have a UPS, the network operating system could provide some forms of protection such as duplicate directories, disk mirroring with two separate disks, or redundant hardware.

Following up, Morrow asked about the resilience of these networks if one of the nodes went down. Kent said a lot of work had been done in this area. The old effect of a ring network–where one node could bring the entire system down–didn’t exist today. The problem was now that the network would slow down significantly, responding in minutes rather than seconds.

Cheifet asked Myers how the LAN market was segmented. Myers said that someone looking at a network had to first assess their objectives. That started with the basic functionality that he previously described, and then you could get into the higher-level functionality. In other words, you started with resource sharing, then file sharing, and then you could think about moving onto multi-user applications. EasyLAN provided a product at the lower end of that functionality. Other products addressed the whole spectrum.

Server Technology Now Powers Data Centers

The bulk of this episode focused on smaller local area network offerings. And neither of the featured products–Grapevine and EasyLAN–seemed to have survived much past the late 1980s. Grapevine debuted in April 1987. It was originally priced at $595 per station, which included both the software and the networking card.

I couldn’t find out much about the company behind Grapevine, Computer Pathways, Inc. It was based out of Washington State. But I was unable to find any specific records of the company’s existence. Based on the history of the “Grapevine” trademark, however, it appears that Computer Pathways ceased active business operations sometime around 1992.

As for EasyLAN, the company behind that product–Server Technology–is still around. Although the modern Server Technology is known for producing power distribution units for servers as opposed to server-less networking options for PCs. Carrel W. Ewing, an engineer who started his career at IBM, founded Server Technology, Inc., in 1984. EasyLAN was apparently the company’s first product. It came onto the market in 1985.

Hank Bannister, reviewing the initial release of EasyLAN for InfoWorld, noted the system offered decent value even if it was slow by networking standards of the time:

Although password protection of files is available, the program does not have any multiuser capability and does not perform file or record locking. That’s just as well, because the transfer of data is limited to the 19,200-bit-per-second speed of the RS-232 cable, an order of magnitude slowed than even Appletalk, the slowest of the major networks. […]

The second limitation is an incapability to daisy-chain computers. Instead, a star configuration must be used, with one computer acting as a hub; the connected computers can talk only to the hub computer, not to one another. Also, only two to 10 computers can be connected; most business offices, [Carrel] Ewing says, have four to six computers in one location.

So in that sense, Grapevine probably would have been a more robust choice in 1987, as it could network up to 30 computers and its distributed networking model did not require a “hub” computer. That said, Server Technology apparently did well enough with EasyLAN to continue iterating on the software until at least the early 1990s. I found one reference in a 1992 InfoWorld article to EasyOffice, which was Server Technology’s more recent low-cost networking solution and it continued to use EasyLAN as the software.

By this time, however, Server Technology had begun transitioning into the remote power management products business. That began in 1990, according to an old version of the company’s website. In 2000, Server Technology relocated from California to Reno, Nevada, and become a major player in providing power distribution to data centers.

Carrel Ewing continued to serve as the company’s chairman and CEO until his death in June 2013. Ewing’s son, Brandon Ewing, the company’s president since its founding, took over as CEO. In November 2017, French industrial conglomerate Legrand acquired Server Technology. As of this writing, Brandon Ewing continues to run the business as an independent subsidiary under Legrand’s North & Central America division.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and first aired during the week of November 18, 1987.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed MemoryMate (Broderbund Software, $80), a memory-resident note-taking program for MS-DOS computers. Schindler noted the program could perform a full-text search of 180,000 characters in just 3 seconds.
  • Dick Kent ran DLM Consultants, Inc., from 1980 to 2007, according to California state corporation records.
  • George Morrow, who co-hosted this episode, actually worked for another company in the LAN business during this time period. After the closing of Morrow Designs in 1986, Morrow started a new company called Intelligent Access to develop disk controllers. Morrow sold Intelligent Access to DSC Nestar in early 1987. Nestar Systems, founded in 1978, was one of the earliest LAN manufacturers. Digital Switch Corporation (DSC) acquired Nestar in 1986. And after buying Intelligent Access, Morrow served as DSC Nestar’s chief scientist for a brief period.
  • Erik Sandberg-Diment of the New York Times used his December 1985 review of EasyLAN as a platform to rant about the poor state of software documentation. Specifically, he complained that EasyLAN’s manual lacked an index. Sandberg-Diment passed away in 2018. No doubt he was even more irate at the state of software documentation–or complete lack thereof–by the mid-2010s.