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Chapter 11 - Standards: An Enabling Institution 1979-1984

11.2 IEEE Committee 802: 1979 - 1980

After co-chairing the Local Area Communications Network Symposium in May 1979, an energized Robert Rosenthal returned to the National Bureau of Standards (NBS) and began organizing an effort to develop Federal Information Processing Standards (FIPS) for local area networking. Proving innovation and creativity know no bounds, the NBS pursued a novel approach to formulating standards, one to have significant implications.

Rosenthal recalls:

We were trying to position ourselves to develop standards in the voluntary community that we could adopt for use in the government. This is an important concept. We said: ‘This is our approach. We want to work with industry in a voluntary arena to get industry backing for products so that we can buy those products. There was a fundamental difference between that way of doing business and the way the Department of Defense wants to do business. The Department of Defense, at the time, would throw money at a problem until it got solved. Vint Cerf and company went off to invent TCP at the time because they got lots of DOD money to make networks work. We said: ‘Fine, you do whatever you need to do, but our approach is to work with industry.

Soon thereafter, Rosenthal, in his capacity as Chairman of the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers (IEEE) Technical Committee of Computer Communications (TCCC), learned of an effort underway to form a group under its microprocessor technical committee to study data highways. (Data highway was another expression for LANs; an expression used in process control for the electrical connections between process control sensors and monitoring equipment.)

Problems of interconnecting computer equipment were not unique to the office. Similar needs existed on the factory floor or in the interconnection of instrumentation equipment. Maris Graube, who will become a leader in the evolution of LAN standards, started out oblivious to LAN developments, either for the office or factory. Graube remembers:

I had never read anything about LAN’s. I knew nothing about data communications, zero, zip, I mean absolutely nothing.

In 1976, Graube, an engineer, joined Tektronix Inc., Portland, OR, not for professional reasons, but because he wanted to live in Oregon. After having been turned down twice for jobs by Tektronix, a friend told him of their need for someone to look into what they should be doing with the new IEEE 488 instrumentation interface standard. Hewlett Packard (HP), their major competitor, had introduced equipment using the standard and Tektronix management feared a competitive disadvantage. Although it was a job “no one else wanted,” Graube leaped at the opportunity and moved to Oregon.

Converting to the 488 standard proved imperative and Graube led its introduction and diffusion throughout Tektronix’s products. His interest and motivations captured, he began attending meetings – then to formulate “codes and formats,” not standards. Focus centered on higher-layer protocols - formats – that would impose information onto the data transmitted - codes. He remembers:

It occurred to me that there were some severe limitations to the 488 interface specification. The distance can only be 20 meters between instruments. If you needed to automate the larger laboratory, this was not appropriate. And various techniques for extending the distance of that particular technology were inadequate. So I was thinking: “Gee, there must be something that has a little bit longer length to it that operates in the megabit per second kind of data rate.” You don’t need to go extremely fast. I didn’t know exactly what it was.

In a casual conversation with a magazine writer, Graube learned Professor Ted Williams at Purdue University led an Industrial Process Control Workshop. Again Graube got involved, even chairing the group for a couple of years, before concluding their “PROWAY” (Process Control Data Highway) inadequate for a laboratory setting. Again his curiosity, and need to make a job of what no-one-else-wanted to do, caused him to ruminate:

I thought: ‘Gee, it would be nice to have a standards committee for something that was more applicable towards computer instrumentation and more of a commercial environment.’ So I started poking around to see if anyone else was doing anything like that in standards bodies, and found out no one was. In 1979, I ran across Bob Stuart, who was with the IEEE, and he had been very instrumental in starting up many standards efforts for microprocessors within IEEE. He said: ‘Well, why don’t you just form a little standards group under the microprocessor standards umbrella.’

I didn’t know anything about how one goes about starting standards or about getting project authorizations or anything, so he helped me a little bit and told me about what to do and what forms to fill out – I still didn’t know what a local area network was.”

With help, Graube submitted a proposal to the IEEE Standards Board to create a local-network standard for laboratory and office settings. After checking to make sure no other such standard effort was underway, the IEEE Standards Board authorized Standards Project 802 in October 1979, under the sponsoring organization of Rosenthal’s TCCC, not the microprocessor group.3 Graube, the appointed chairman, needed next to form a technical committee to formulate the standard. Members of Committee 802, as it would come to be known, had to be members of the IEEE and could not represent the interests of any organization – even their employers – and had to volunteer their efforts. The goal: a draft standard with the support of three quarters of those participating in its creation. Rosenthal remembers that moment:

Everything was in place.

Graube scheduled the first Committee 802 meeting for February 28, 1980, concurrent with the spring meeting of CompCon. (Since member’s participated voluntarily, meetings were generally held in conjunction with trade shows or other technical meetings.) Uncertain of how many people might attend the mandated open meeting, Graube arranged for a small meeting room at the Jack Tar Hotel in San Francisco. To his, and everyone else’s, surprise, the crowd, estimated at as many as 150, overflowed into the hallway and delayed the start of the meeting, adding yet more confusion to a still-forming process. Many were simply curious engineers preferring to join their own rather than a night out sightseeing. Others, like Robert Metcalfe and John Shoch, had vested interests, and still others, like the “droves”4 of Bell Labs engineers, came out of habit. When the meeting finally began, Rosenthal recalls with awe:

All we had was Maris to stand up and organize it.

With help from others more experienced, Graube weathered the melee and established the goal of one standard:

roughly a megabit per second and a kilometer long and connect some 100 devices or so, and be made for the commercial environment.

Before adjourning, Rosenthal proposed their work conform to the recently published OSI Reference Model.5 After affirming the proposal, the next meeting was set for May 27th-31st, 1980, at NBS.

As chairman, Graube wielded significant influence and authority both to transform his vision into the standard as well as to structure the needed subcommittees. In both regards he relied heavily on his PROWAY experiences. For example, he wanted to follow the PROWAY approach of first establishing the functional requirements for the standard and avoid the parade of companies lobbying for their products to be declared the standard. Once the functional requirements had been agreed to, however, Graube wanted to proceed differently from PROWAY which had become mired in the process of evaluating whether a given company’s product best fit the standard. He recalls:

At the end they thought that there would be one product that was more outstanding than the others, and that would be selected as the standard.

Graube recognized that no vendor would vote for a competitor’s product and so a standard was unlikely to emerge. Instead, Graube wanted to create the standard and then let companies build products to conform to it – non-proprietary products that would benefit from open competition.

Despite Graube’s clear view of how to proceed, he underestimated the number of technological alternatives that existed, the economic stakes at risk and the efforts corporations would make to influence Committee 802. Rosenthal sensed the inherent friction of interests represented by those attending that first meeting:

You could feel fire in the air!

As much as Graube wanted to preclude corporations from unduly influencing the dynamics of standards making, he was not to have his way.

  • [3]

    Graube, Spectrum, June 1982

  • [4]

    Rosenthal Interview

  • [5]

    Marvin Sirbu and Kent Hughes, Standardization of Local Area Networks, Department of Engineering and Public Policy, Carnegie Mellon University, April 1986, p. 11