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Profile: History of Computers at Western Carolina University
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History

Today

The Future

History of Computers at
Western Carolina University

Written by David St.Clair


Computers are amazing.  They continue to become more and more centralized in our lives.  Here at Western, computers play a vital role in every student’s education.  They also have a history that is probably not known to most students or alumni.  Ever wonder what it was like to use a computer back in the 1970's or 1980's?

 

History

It all started approximately in the late 1960's and early 1970's.  Back then, students didn't have their own computers and there was no Internet available on campus.  There was only the sound of punch card readers.  It would be quite a chore to punch out hundreds of cards just to find out you made a typo.

Around the late 1970's and early 1980's the school moved to a machine called a VAX machine.  It was the main computer where you could run the programs you wanted and you didn't have to use punchcards!

Around the late 1980's and early 1990's the VAX machine was replaced with two machines called "Alphas,” which are still running today (2002).  About this time, the campus most likely used modems for most "net" activity.  It was a big thing to be able to dial into the Alpha machines and talk to other people in a chat room.  Today that seems pretty simple, but to people back then, it was state of the art.

In 1997, the network really started to take off.  Resnet was started, and the university had all the dorm rooms wired with two connections per room so that students could have internet access from their own room.  For those who like to know more technical details, the main backbone was, and still is, FDDI; they used something called a Token Ring topology (which means the network was basically set up in a giant circle).

Today

Today (2002), Resnet serves the entire campus.  They continue to upgrade existing computer labs, and are preparing for the next generation of computing.  They have switched from the Token Ring Topology to a Star Topology (network is setup like a star).  Currently, the lines between buildings are 100Mbit (very fast), and the dorms share a 10Mbit connection on each floor (somewhat fast).

The main connection to the campus is something called an OC 3 connection (pretty fast).  They are in the process of upgrading to OC 12 (unbelievably fast).  They are also preparing to hook up dorm rooms with the 100Mbit connections.  The University is also implementing a wireless network throughout the campus.  This network will allow any student with a wireless network card to roam the campus without having to worry about a network connection.

The Future

In the near future, the computer labs will undergo a major overhaul.  Due to the State of North Carolina's budget crisis, the school is unable to replace most of the labs with new computers.  The people in the Information Technology Services are preparing to set up all the labs with something called a Citrix Client.  Basically, there will be one very big computer on campus and everyone will work off of that system.  The current computers in the lab will be "terminals" which let you use the big computer over the network.  Users will notice little difference from what they have now.  The nice thing is that any computer will work with the new system, even old ones.

In the next couple of years, students can expect vast changes in the way they use a computer.  It is interesting to know where the history of computers at Western Carolina came from and where we are going when it comes to the area of technology.