IBM and networking: Ancient history? Yes, and No

The point:  IBM has a rich history in networking.  For more than two decades, IBM was one of the most significant contributors to networking technologies in the industry.  But it is not all just ancient history.  After a decade-long hiatus from the network hardware business, IBM is back and driving innovations for system solutions today.

virtual telecommunications access methodIn this post, I’ll briefly touch upon IBM’s history in networking and, more importantly, how we have come to be where we are today.

In the 1970s, IBM introduced Systems Network Architecture (SNA) and corresponding products: Virtual Telecommunications Access Method (VTAM) mainframe software, communication controller hardware (IBM 3705, 3725, and 3745) and Network Control Program (NCP) controller software (and the first “network operating system”) – enabling customers to move beyond batch-only computer applications to interactive terminal-based applications.

Key milestones (excerpted from “History of IBM”) included:

  • 1974: IBM announces Systems Network Architecture (SNA), a networking protocol for computing systems. SNA becomes the most widely used system for data processing until more open architecture standards were approved in the 1990s.
  • 1977: IBM’s Data Encryption Standard (DES), an enciphering and deciphering algorithm, is accepted as a standard by National Bureau of Standards.
  • 1984: The Advanced Peer-To-Peer Networking architecture (APPN), widely used by mid-range systems, is developed by IBM researchers. It allows individual computers to talk to one another without a central server.
  • 1985: IBM introduces the major elements of its token-ring local area network for sharing computers, printers, files and devices in a building or building complex. Token-ring architecture quickly becomes an industry standard for Local Area Networks (LANs).
  • 1988: IBM collaborates with MCI Communications and the University of Michigan to form a computer network, the National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), which provides the network infrastructure and lays the groundwork for the explosive growth of the Internet in the 1990s.

SNA served customer needs very well and, in fact, many of the largest businesses in the world today continue to run SNA-based applications; albeit, now, usually across TCP/IP-based networks.
IBM ventured into Ethernet and TCP/IP networking products in the 1990s – developing families of Ethernet switches and TCP/IP routers (actually, “multiprotocol” routers – given that they could carry SNA and other protocol traffic across TCP/IP networks).

tcp IP networking

Key IBM networking milestones from the 1990s included:

  • 1994: The company forms the IBM Global Network as a business unit which will develop and operate the world’s largest high-speed voice and data network dedicated to network-centric computing. The IBM Global Network already serves two million users at some 25,000 businesses and government agencies in more than 100 countries.
  • 1996: At Fall Internet World 1996, IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner, Jr., unveils the notion of the “new killer apps,” a world of transaction-intensive, networked applications delivered to a world of connected individuals by all of the world’s most important institutions. At a time when the conventional wisdom casts the Internet as the home of games, information and e-mail, this speech reorients the debate around the more profound vocational implications of networked computing.
  • 1997: IBM Chairman Louis V. Gerstner, Jr. announces to IBM employees the debut of a major strategic campaign built around the IBM-coined term “e-business.” In his first major customer address on e-business – a speech considered by many as the first “wake-up call” to Wall Street on the implications of the networked world – Gerstner describes to the Securities Industries Association the Internet’s ability to challenge centuries-old business models and transform the nature of all important transactions between individuals and institutions.

On August 31, 1999, IBM announced the acquisition by Cisco of portions of IBM’s networking intellectual property (press release) ending – for a time – IBM’s foray into Ethernet and TCP/IP networking infrastructure products (while, of course, IBM continued to support and leverage networking from server and storage systems and as a consulting and services business).

Much has changed since 1999. In particular:

  • Server virtualization technologies – once predominately a mainframe capability – are available in most server environments and are growing in popularity due to their ability to improve operational efficiency, flexibility, and systems availability.
  • Storage networking, including Fibre Channel Storage Area Networking, has experienced very-significant growth rates.
  • Ethernet bandwidth, which started at 10 Million Bits per Second (Mbps), has grown through Fast Ethernet (100Mbps) and Gigabit Ethernet (1 Gbps) to 10 Gbps and even 40Gbps today, with 100 Gbps in the near future.

Networks and systems have continued to become increasingly interdependent:

  1. Increasing server virtualization is straining the capacity and flexibility of networks to support it.
  2. Ethernet technologies have advanced to the point that they can provide a viable converged alternative to separate storage and data networks.
  3. Storage networks have grown to where the costs of running separate networks are significant – and an attractive target for IT operational cost-cutting initiatives.

The evolution to a dynamic infrastructure requires a fundamental rethinking of the relationship between the network and the IT infrastructure components. Organizations need a holistic approach to plan and design the network together with the servers, storage and applications to ensure the flexibility, performance and manageability to deliver optimal value.

IBM Networking Redux:  Consequently, on April 28, 2009, IBM once again entered the networking business as part of its “Dynamic Infrastructure” initiative (press release). IBM offers software, hardware, and services to help clients build and manage more dynamic system networking infrastructures.  Check out our IBM System Networking home page.


IBM RackSwitch G8052: 48x RJ45 ports (10/100/1000Mbps), 4x SFP+ ports (1/10Gbps)

 rackswitch 1


IBM RackSwitch G8264: 4x QSFP+ ports (1x 40Gbps or 4x 10Gbps), 48x SFP+ ports (1/10Gbps)

 rackswitch 2


IBM RackSwitch G8316: 16x QSFP+ ports (1x 40Gbps or 4x 10Gbps)

 rackswitch 3

So why talk with IBM about networking?  In order to optimize IT systems, organizations are rethinking their network infrastructures – supporting strategic IT initiatives while also improving performance and reducing costs.

IBM offers Ethernet switches for open-standards-based server and storage connectivity that provide industry-leading support for virtualization and enable Ethernet and storage network convergence. Our switches deliver higher-performance at lower cost while reducing data-center power, cooling, and space requirements.

Because of our systems strength, IBM is uniquely positioned to help you to build the solution that is best for your business, and to avoid the pitfalls of dead-end or vendor-lock-in technologies.

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Comments: 1
Bob Louden

About Bob Louden

Bob is a Consulting IT Specialist providing worldwide pre-sales technical support for IBM’s networking products. His thirty years with IBM – in roles ranging from product development, to Systems Engineer, to world-wide technical sales support, to IBM Global Service consulting – have enabled him to develop strong professional skills including leadership, project management, problem solving, and decision analysis. Bob’s experience includes teaching, speaking at conferences, and consulting on networking applications, infrastructure, and services. His technical expertise includes IBM mainframe environments, networking, and network and systems management. Together, his experience and expertise enable him to help organizations apply technology solutions to business problems.

One Response to IBM and networking: Ancient history? Yes, and No

  1. Tekmos says:

    Great post Bob, thanks! IBM has come a long way and formed extensively over 100 years of operating business in the field of information handling. Very much so many of their products and services were implemented in order to record, process, communicate and store information. With the development of communication especially, IBM has engaged an awesome tactic to stay at the top of the pecking order.


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