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?
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 (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
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.
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.