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Icons of Progress

The Rise of the Internet


Creating the first nationwide high-speed network in the United States was a daunting challenge.

When plans were proposed in 1987 to upgrade that network to fulfill the demands of growing NSFNET traffic, the technology didn’t exist. IBM, together with its partners, had to invent the hardware to transmit data at speeds previously unimaginable. The high speeds led to difficulties in providing consistent data between networks, so the team had to come up with software solutions as they went. A team member described it as peeling the layers of an onion—every time engineers solved one problem, they found another challenge underneath. But the team delivered the network on time and on budget, creating the backbone of the modern Internet.

Getting up to speed

Before IBM installed the T1 backbone, the fastest routers switched fewer than 1000 packets of data per second. In comparison, today’s high-speed routers can switch more than 100,000 packets per second. To meet the rising demand for network access, IBM and its partners replaced the T1 backbone with IBM T3 RS/6000 routers in 1991. These routers offered a 30-fold increase in network bandwidth to compensate for and anticipate additional traffic. The first demonstration of data transmission over the T3 backbone took place with an IBM RS/6000 supercomputer. By the end of 1994, the T3 backbone was moving 17.8 trillion bytes of data a month—the equivalent of moving the entire Library of Congress every four months.

The Private Internet Service Provider

In addition to providing the hardware that created the modern Internet, IBM also helped bring access to the public. Together with Sears, IBM worked to create Prodigy, one of the first commercial Internet Service Providers. IBM also offered customers its own ISP, the IBM Global Network.