Nov 16, 2012
Note: This was written for the November 14th, 2012 IMTS Insider
The phrase, “The Network Is The Computer”, was Sun Microsystems company tag line. Today, that phrase is obvious to anyone who has ever sat in front of a web browser; however, in 1984 that was the most prophetic statement anyone could have made to predict the future of computing. I worked at Sun from early 1987 through 2010 and this slogan proved to be the blueprint not only for Sun’s vision of computing, but the vision of computing for companies around the globe. It’s important to understand how and why this slogan came to be a landmark for an entire industry.
The history of this phrase goes back to a 1984 train ride in China that John Gage, Sun employee #21, creator of JavaOne, NetDay and Chief Researcher and Director of the Science Office and Bill Joy, Sun co-founder, Chief Scientist and known as the “Edison of the Internet”. How do I know this? I was fortunate enough to have a number of dinners with John and Bill. I remember asking Bill at a Sushi restaurant in Aspen, CO when I was there with two other Technical Directors and a Distinguished Engineer, how the phrase came about. Bill told the story that he and John were traveling on the train in China and they were going through John’s slides. John made the observation that importance of the network was growing at an exponential rate and he wanted to reflect that in the title of his upcoming talk. Initially, John said that “the network is the disk drive”, to which Bill, replied that the phrase did not capture his talk. John then came up with, “the network is the computer”, and that was used for the talk and became Sun’s famous tag line.
A few years later I was having dinner with John and a CTO from a local technology company in DC when I decided to ask John about the history of Sun’s tag line. John repeated what Bill said almost word for word.
It is very important to put that time period in perspective for those who were not in the industry back then. In 1984 computer networking was just starting to take shape with various non-compatible networks that completely lack of the characteristics that we take for granted today. In the 1980s and the early 1990s there were different topologies from ring, star, bus and net to the plethora of networks and protocols from AppleTalk, Banyan VINES, FDDI, SMB, MS-NET, Ethernet, Token Ring, DECnet, SNA, ARCnet, 802.3, SDLC, XNS, X.25, TCP/IP, ISDN, and ATM to name just a few. Networking computers together was complicated and expensive. A popular network was called SneakerNet. For those of you not old enough, SneakerNet was when you grabbed a floppy, wrote the file(s) needed to be transferred on it, and then carried it (SneakerNet) to the person’s PC that needed the file. The role of network engineer came out of this time period. There was no plug-n-play as we have today. There was no cloud computing. There were no smart phones. There were no iPads or tablets. AOL was considered a powerhouse in the early 1990s because they had literally banks of modems that you would dial into and hear the high pitch hand shake between your computer’s modem and AOL’s on the other end. 1984 was a very long time ago in the computer industry and for John Gage to have made that incredible insightful comment is absolutely amazing.
Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC), came out with a t-shirt that said, “The Network is the Network, The Computer is the Computer, Sorry For Any Confusion.” At Sun, we got a kick out of that t-shirt, but DEC really did miss the point.
Today, the phrase is ingrained in everything that we do online. When you use an app on your iPhone or Android, do you know or even care where the data is stored? Not unless you are a geek you don’t. You simply want access to your data in a fast and reliable fashion.
On January 10th, 2006, I happened to be out at Sun's Headquarters in Menlo Park, CA when I heard about the Sun Founders Panel to be held the evening the next day at The Computer History Museum. Like any long time Sun employee or geek in general, I wanted to be there live. When I went there in the afternoon of the 11th, I was told there were no more tickets left. I asked the nice folks at The Computer History Museum what could I do in order to get in. They said that there would be a waiting list that they would start at 6:00pm taking names. I asked if I purchased a very nice Computer Museum polo shirt would I be #1 on the list. They smiled said, "I think we can do that." Luckily for me, I was one of the few on the waiting list who did get in that night.
It was a fantastic night that was hosted by John Gage with all four of Sun's founders there - Andy Bechtolsheim, Vinod Khosla, Scott McNealy and Bill Joy. I learned about Vaughn Pratt and the huge contributions that he made to Sun Microsystems. Vaughn designed the famous Sun logo, which features four interleaved copies of the word "sun"; it is an ambigram according to Wikipedia.
At the end of the evening, there was time for question and answer. I thought this was a great time to permanently capture the story of "The Network is the Computer". One of the reasons that I did this is I remember sitting in a meeting at Sun a few years back with some customers I knew very well when a marketing VP was trying to take credit for coming up with the phrase. Not being the shy introvert and not wanting to see customers get wrong information, I spoke up and said, “John Gage came up with the phrase with Bill Joy on a train trip in China in 1984. I know this because I personally asked both of them.” The marketing VP then backed down from his outlandish claim. I then went to the microphone and asked Bill and John to retell the story, which they did.
As you can probably tell by now, I am a bit of history buff when it comes to the computer industry. I believe how we got to a given point matters. I also believe that the computer industry is one of the best examples of where a rising tide really does lift all ships. When John made his famous statement it was not just a title for his talk in China, nor was simply the future tag line of Sun Microsystems, but it was really a call to action for an entire industry. By laying out the destination, John inspired thousands of engineers from around the globe to help build that vision.
In 2006, I was giving a keynote at AMT’s annual meeting in Lake Las Vegas, Nevada. This was the first of two keynotes that was the beginning of MTConnect. Dr. David Patterson of University of California Berkeley gave the second keynote laying out MTConnect. In my presentation borrowed Sun’s slogan and modified for a point I was making regarding the future of manufacturing. My slide title was, “The Network Is The Machine Tool.” I strongly believed that then and time has only reinforced my belief. Cloud computing and cloud storage is dramatically changing manufacturing. Look for a future IMTS Insider article from me titled, “The Network Is The Machine Tool”, where I will show why John Gage was right in 1984 and will be continued to be right today and specifically as it applies to manufacturing.