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Feb 27, 2022

One of my first jobs out of college was ripping Banyan VINES out of a company and replacing it with LAN Manager. Banyan VINES was a network operating system for Unix systems. It came along in 1984. This was a time when minicomputers running Unix were running at most every University and when Unix offered far more features that the alternatives.

Sharing files was as old as the Internet. Telnet was created in 1969. FTP came along in 1971. SMB in 1983. Networking computers together had evolved from just the ARPANET to local protocols like ALOHAnet, which inspired Bob Metcalfe to start work on the PARC Universal Packet protocol with David Boggs, which evolved into the Xerox Network Systems, or XNS, suite of networking protocols that were developed to network the Xerox Alto. Along the way the two of them co-invented Ethernet. But there were developments happening in various locations in silos. For example, TCP was more of an ARPANET then NSFNET project so wasn’t used for computers on their own networks to communicate yet.

Data General was founded in 1968 when Edson de Castro, the project manager for the PDP-8 at Digital Equipment Corporation, grew frustrated that the PDP wasn’t evolving fast enough. He, Henry Burkhardt, and Richard Sogge of Digital would be joined by Herbert Richman, who did sales for Fairchild Semiconductor. They were proud of the PDP-8. It was a beautiful machine. But they wanted to go even further. And they didn’t feel like they could do so at Digital. A few computers later,

Within a year, they shipped the next generation machine, which they called the Nova. They released more computers but then came the explosion of computers that was the personal computing market. Microcomputers showed up in offices around the world and on multiple desks. And it didn’t take long before people started wondering if it wouldn’t be faster to run a cable between computers than it was to save a file to a floppy and get on an elevator.

By the 1970s, Data General had been writing software for customers, mostly for the rising tide of UNIX System V implementations. But just giving customers a TCP/IP stack or an application that could open a socket over an X.25 network, which was later replaced with Frame Relay networks run by phone systems and for legacy support on those X.25 was streamed over TCP/IP. Some of the people from those projects at Data General saw an opportunity to build a company that focused on a common need, moving files back and forth between the microcomputers that were also being connected to these networks.

David Mahoney was a manager at Data General who saw what customers were asking for. And he saw an increasing under of those microcomputers needed a few common services to connect to. So he left to form Banyan Systems in 1983, bringing Anand Jagannathan and Larry Floryan with him. They built Banyan VINES (Virtual Integrated NEtwork Service) in 1984, releasing version 1. Their client software could run on DOS and connect to X.25, Token Ring (which IBM introduced in 1984), or the Ethernet networks Bob Metcalfe from Xerox and then 3Com was a proponent of. After all, much of their work resembled the Xerox Network Systems protocols, which Metcalfe had helped develop.

They used a 32-bit address. They developed an Address Resolution Protocol (or ARP) and Routing Table Protocol (RTP) that used tables on a server. And they created a file services application, print services application, and directory service they called StreetTalk. To help, they brought in Jim Allchin, who eventually did much of the heavy lifting. It was similar enough to TCP/IP, but different. Yet as TCP/IP became the standard, they added that at a cost.

The whole thing came in at $17,000 and ran on less bandwidth than other services, and so they won a few contracts with the US State Deparment, US Marine Corps, and other government agencies. Many embassies used 300 baud phone lines with older modems and the new VINES service allowed them to do file sharing, print sharing, and even instant messaging throughout the late 80s and early 90s. The Marine Corp used it during the Gulf War and in an early form of a buying tornado, they went public in 1992, raising $28 million through NASDAQ.

They grew to 410 employees and peaked at around $75 million in sales, spread across 7000 customers. They’d grown through word of mouth and other companies with strong marketing and sales arms were waiting in the wings. Novel was founded in 1983 in Utah and they developed the IPX network protocol. Netware would eventually become one of the most dominant network operating systems for Windows 3 and then Windows 95 computers.

Yet, with incumbents like Banyan VINES and Novel Netware, this is another one of those times when Microsoft saw an opening for something better and just willed it into existence. And the story is similar to that of dozens of other companies including Novell, Lotus, VisiCalc, Netscape, Digital Research, and the list goes on and on and on.

This kept happening because of a number of reasons. The field of computing had been comprised of former academics, many of whom weren’t aggressive in business. Microsoft ended up owning the operating system and so had selling power when it came to cornering adjacent markets because they could provide the cleanest possible user experience. People seemed to underestimate Microsoft until it was too late. Inertia. Oh, and Microsoft could outspend on top talent and offer them the biggest impact for their work. Whatever the motivators, Microsoft won in nearly every nook and cranny in the IT field that they pursued for decades.

The damaging part for Banyan was when they teamed up with IBM to ship LAN Manager, which ultimately shipped under the name of each company. Microsoft ended up recruiting Jim Allchin away and with network interface cards falling below $1,000 it became clear that the local area network was really just in its infancy. He inherited LAN Manager and then NT from Dave Cutler and the next thing we knew, Windows NT Server was born, complete with file services, print services, and a domain, which wasn’t a fully qualified domain name until the release of Active Directory. Microsoft added Windsock in 1993 and released their own protocols. They supported protocols like IPX/SPX and DECnet but slowly moved customers to their own protocols.

Banyan released the last version of Banyan VINES, 7.0, in 1997. StreetTalk eventually became an NT to LDAP bridge before being cancelled in the end. The dot com bubble was firmly here, though, so all was not lost. They changed their name in 1999 to ePresence, shifting their focus to identity management and security, officially pulling out of the VINES market. But the dot com bubble burst, so they were acquired in 2003 by Unisys.

There were other companies in different networking niches along the way. Phil Karn wrote KA9Q NOS to connect CP/M and then DOS to TCP/IP in 1985. He wrote it on a Xerox 820, but by then Xerox was putting Zilog chips in computers and running CP/M, seemingly with little of the flair the Alto could have had. But with KA9Q NOS any of the personal computers on the market could get on the Internet and that software helped host many a commercial dialup connection and would go on to be used for years in small embedded devices that needed IP connectivity. Those turned out to be markets overtaken by Banyan who was overtaken by Novel, who was overtaken by Microsoft when they added WinSock.

There are a few things to take away from this journey. The first is that when IBM and Microsoft team up to develop a competing product, it’s time to pivot when there’s plenty of money left in the bank. The second is that there was an era of closed systems that was short lived when vendors wanted to increasingly embrace open standards. Open standards like TCP/IP. We also want to keep our most talented team in place. Jim Allchin was responsible for those initial Windows Server implementations. Then SQL Server. He was the kind of person who’s a game changer on a team. We also don’t want to pivot to the new hotness because it’s the new hotness. Customers pay vendors to solve problems. Putting an e in front of the name of a company seemed really cool in 1998. But surveying customers and thinking more deeply about problems they face - that’s where magic can happen. Provided we have the right talent to make it happen.