IOL: In The Beginning

It started with the Research Computing Center at UNH in the late 1970’s with an idea.  After taking the job to start, setup, and run RCC, I quickly learned that finding financial support at the University was not all that easy. We scraped for every dollar, UNH faculty was not use to paying for service, but they liked the quality of the service, so that model did work (of course they never could pay enough). 

I looked at where the office spent most of its monies, people and very expensive high-speed computers. Since the people costs could not be changed my plan became to find some way of working with companies to help them and also help us. In the process provide a useful student experience, because I also felt that we needed to improve the quality of UNH engineering education by providing an apprenticeship experience. What I also wanted was a “hands on” experience for students, putting industry and student engineers together to solve real technical problems.

The office was very small consisting of only 4 staff and part time people. This idea of connecting to industry for research and funding was discussed at length with the full time people, one of who was Barry Reinhold.  Barry was young, very bright and energetic systems programmer, he immediately grasped what I wanted to do and started to work on building such a program.

Starting in 1979 we immediately hired students to be our first line of customer support, we referred to them as ”operators”. That meant that they handled on-site and over-the-phone requests from customers, to mount tapes, collect printout, read in computer cards, and setup the pen plotter.  All of these tasks no longer exist, however you can see a good display of this technology at Disney World’s EPCOT in Spaceship Earth.

The University decided to move us over to the new Morse Hall building from our old rented space in The Pettee Brook Office building (where the IOL is now). That occurred in 1986 and at that time we had a design for the base network. We had started networking all the Prime computers on campus together from our old office via fractional T1 phone lines, connecting to Okane Farm and Demeritt Hall. The new network would support all the offices in the building, first on campus.

When students had free time they were assigned to programming projects developing code for customers and debugging problems. As time went on they did less “operator” tasks and more software and network/computer troubleshooting always leaving them on the front line of customer support. I recall that on a trip to the Okane farm (now where the CSDC is located), I went into the cellar to check equipment in a steel cabinet to find that a mother black snake and her children had taken up residence!

We were very active with the Prime Computer Users group ultimately becoming officers in the group, which was not part of Prime Computer, Inc. This provided very close association with Prime computer executives. These relationships allowed RCC to have access to the needs of the engineering group and it’s testing department. We started by testing the Prime OS in the beta testing process and during that process which was over a couple of years, DR. Carrier that worked for RCC (still does) found an error in the microcode of the processor in their newest and most high performance machine (8 Mips). This got the VP for engineering’s immediate attention, and he proposed a contractual arrangement for a testing program of a year. The first project was for $900K in equipment, maintenance and money. This was 1987.

We would from time to time receive testing tasks from Prime engineering. In 1988 Prime wanted us to work on testing their network components, both hardware and software. We started with PrimeNet their proprietary network and then moved to Ethernet components. We hired two EE student “operators”; they ultimately become the first IOL students, Eric Macdonald and Jay Francis. During this time I received a call and the gentleman on phone said that he was from Cabletron (a well known NH networking company).  He heard that we were testing his equipment and wanted to know why he was not getting test results. I informed him that we did not test his company’s equipment and that we provided results only to our customers. His response was to question me about the Prime components and then ask me if he could have us do the same work for him. We were now off and running! 

We quickly needed to build an organizational structure that would allow open equipment testing, even for equipment in prototype state. We knew that we had to eliminate lawyers from the process as well marketing and sales people.  We decided to proceed focusing on the interoperability of equipment in a large lab environment. This of course meant that a some point we needed to get people together to work out issues and that we needed to be part of the international organizations that determined networking and communications standards. This had never been attempted before, but we knew we had several ace’s up our sleeves, the objectiveness of UNH, low cost environment, and interested faculty. We also learned that some other very desirable things occurred, students loved the idea and the support. 

Some, as a matter of fact loved it a little too much!  We had students that got so excited they were literally living at the lab. I would often come in at 7 am finding them asleep at their desk. The other item that was unusual at UNH/IOL was that students were getting job offers (without applying), and the jobs were not typical “starting” level jobs but 2 or 3 levels up. Some companies would call consortium managers and just ask him or her to send any students that they would recommend. Some companies wound up with network departments staffed by over a dozen IOL alumni. Again this was a win-win situation.

The IOL became a very personal activity. When we had test periods it was decided that to keep costs low Jane and I would provide food for test period lunches and breakfasts. This meant that we would take our Suburban to the grocery store pickup 150 cases of drinks and bread, meats, cheese and condiments to allow people to make sandwiches, have chips, cole slaw, and drinks without leaving and included in their cost. We often fill the truck ½ with food and drink; the grocery store would allow us to check out separately with an industrial truck full of food.  Our two UNH student boys helped as well, it was a family affair. We did this for several test periods, the side effect of this was that we could not stand to food shop or cook for quite awhile!  

We started by opening the 10BaseT consortium for the newest Ethernet technology. During this process we operating out of space in the RCC machine room using wooden equipment racks that I built in my shed. Soon that space was oversubscribed and we moved to the RCC space on the second floor in Morse, there we expanded to FDDI and Token Ring consortiums. During this time one of the FDDI customers came for equipment testing was gentleman named Ron Pashby, he seemed to know everything about FDDI. During conversations with Ron, he showed an interest in moving to NH and working at the IOL.  I know I was shocked and excited. We were able to hire him and with his additional help the lab accelerated its growth exponentially. He got us involved with the IETF organization and working in the Networld+Interop exposition and conference.

This narrative will continue in future IOL Newsletters.

Submitted: William Lenharth, Ph.D.