• United States

In networking, your money goes a lot further these days

Mar 27, 20064 mins
ComputersHard DrivesServers

In 1986, one 9.6Kbps modem had a list price of $1,200.

Need a modem? Go down to CompUSA and for $20 ($19.99, actually), you can pick up a 56Kbps modem card that also can send and receive faxes. It’s completely unremarkable (except perhaps for the question of why you’d even need a modem in this age of wireless access points and built-in Ethernet ports).

But set the time machine to 1986, when dinosaurs walked the Earth – and Network World began. Back then, Racal-Vadic’s 9.6Kbps modem had a list price of $1,200; Fastcomm’s $1,100. Or you could try your luck on a US Robotics Courier HST 9.6Kbps modem for only $750. Not fast enough? Telebyte offered a 19.2Kbps modem – at $3,500. 56Kbps? Hah! That’s what WAN backbones used.

When it comes to network gear, seems to have done pretty well over the past 20 years – prices have tumbled even as performance has skyrocketed. To see by how much, we tried to compare what $20 would buy you today – and what it would have gotten you 20 years ago.

Today, for about $20, you can buy a 10/100Mbps network interface card (NIC) (if you really want to splurge, add another $10 for a 1Gbps model). In 1986? Forget about it! Digital sold the equivalent of an NIC for $500. Connecting Ethernet segments back then might run you $3,800 for a 5Mbps Ungermann-Bass repeater or $8,000 for a 10Mbps DEC LAN Bridge 100.

Applitek sold Ethernet bridges for $13,000 each (but they did packet filtering). Today, you can get a D-Link DWL-G810 108Mbps (wireless) Ethernet Bridge for $120 or so.

Storage is another network technology that has seen almost unbelievable changes. Today, $20 would buy you about 36GB of storage (based on a 250GB Western Digital hard drive recently advertised for $139 at CompUSA). In 1986, one Usenet post marveled that somebody was selling 71MB Micropolis hard drives (with retrieval times of 30 millisecs) for $1,250 apiece. “I bought one before he was able to get sane, and I would recommend you do the same,” the poster wrote. So if it were possible to divide that hard drive, for $20, you’d get a little more than 1MB of storage (which today wouldn’t be enough to hold a single photo from your basic digital camera). For more permanent storage, you could buy an ISI optical-disk system, which used write-once CD-ROMs, for $3,000.

Of course, you’d want to attach that storage to a file server for your network. Today, Dell will sell you a 3.66GHz PowerEdge 6800 server for $15,360, or $4.20 per MHz. In 1986, Sperry-Mitsubishi sold a file server for $3,000 that ran at 8MHz and came with a 44MB hard drive (you could get a 300MB add-on drive for $3,500). That works out to $375 per MHz.

Moving into Unix territory back then, you could pick up a Tek 6130, which came with two RS-232 connectors, a LAN card, a 40M- or 80-MB hard drive and a 5.25-inch floppy drive for between $10,000 and $15,000. Megadata advertised a Unix box “for under $5,000” that came with a 26MB hard drive and 1MB of RAM.

Printers? Then, as now, laser printers were top of the line. But in 1986, you’d pay $6,000 for an Apple LaserWriter. Microcenter now has several laser printers on sale for $300 and lower.

In 1986, according to FCC records, you could talk for two hours and 22 minutes on an interstate call for $20. By 2005 (the last year for which it has records), that same $20 would keep you yacking for almost a full day (and that’s on plain old telephone system – the price would be a lot less for an IP-based service, such as Vonage or Skype).

In 1986, a leased line might cost as much as $1,200 a month for 4800-baud synchronous line. Today, Verizon offers business-class with 7.1Mbps download and 768Kbps upload for $234.95 a month.

AT&T and Visual Communications offered videophones for $75,000 apiece – and they required dedicated 56Kbps leased lines. Today, a QuickCam costs $100 or less.

Not everything has come down in price. In 1986, Windows 1.0 cost $99 list (and faced serious competition from QuarterDeck’s multitasking DesqView at $65). Today, Windows XP Home Edition starts at about $125 (although one could argue you could replace it with a free operating system, such as Linux).

Previous story: 20 most-important stories | Next story: Where have all the leaders gone? >

Responsible for editorial content on this Web site, so blame him, especially when it comes to Compendium. In his spare time, he runs Boston Online, a service devoted to the Hub of the Universe. He is learning to talk wicked good.

More from this author