I remember c|net: a look back on computing in the mid-1990s

The news this week is that c|net (and ZDnet) have been sold to a private equity firm. I remember when c|net was just starting out, because I wrote one of the first hands-on reviews of web server software back in 1996. To test these products, I worked with a new company at the time called Keylabs. They were the team that built one of the first huge, 1000-PC testing labs at Novell and were spun out as a separate company, eventually spinning off their own endpoint automation software company called Altiris that was acquired by Symantec and now is part of Broadcom. They were eager to show their bona fides and worked with me to run multiple PC tests involving hundreds of computers trying to bang away on each web server product. “1996 was an exciting time for computing,” said Jan Newman who is now a partner at the VC firm SageCreek and was one of the Keylabs founders. “The internet was gathering steam and focus was changing from file and print servers to the web. I believe this project with David was the very first of its kind in the industry. It was exciting to watch new platforms rise to prominence.” Now we have virtual machines and other ways to stress test products. The review shows how the web was won back in the early days.

Here are some observations from re-reading that piece.

  1. The demise of NetWare as a server platform. Back in the mid 1990s, NetWare — and its associated IPX protocol — was everywhere, until Microsoft and the Internet happened. Now it is about as hard to find as a COBOL developer. One advantage that NetWare had was it was efficient: you could run a web server on a 486 box at about the same performance as any of the Windows servers running on a faster Pentium CPU.
  2. Remember Windows NT? That was the main Microsoft server platform at the time. It came in four different versions: running on Intel, DEC Alpha, MIPS and PowerPC processors. Those latter two were RISC processors that mostly have disappeared, although Apple Macs and Microsoft Xbox’s  ran on PowerPCs for years.
  3. Remember Netscape? In addition to their web browser that made Mark Andreesen rich, they also had their own web server, called FastTrack, that was in beta at the time of my review. Despite being a solid performer, it never caught on. It did support both Java and JavaScript, something that the NT-only web servers didn’t initially offer.
  4. The web wasn’t the only data server game. Back in the mid-1990s, we had FTP, and Gopher as popular precursors. While you can still find FTP (I mainly use to transfer files to my web server and to get content to cloud images), Gopher (which got its name from the University of Minnesota team mascot) is gone into a deep, dark hole.
  5. Microsoft’s web server, IIS, was underwhelming when first was released. It didn’t support Java, didn’t do server-side includes (an early way to use dynamic content), didn’t have a web-based management tool, didn’t support hosting multiple domains unless you used separate network adapters, didn’t have any proxy server support and made use of an unsecured user accounts. Of course, now it is one of the top web server platforms with Apache.
  6. You think your computer is slow? How about a 200 MHz Pentium. That was about as fast as you could expect back then. And installing 16 MB of RAM and using 10/100 Ethernet networks were the norm.

1 thought on “I remember c|net: a look back on computing in the mid-1990s

  1. FWIW, some time ago, an Intel motherboard with Pentium Pro showed up here. I also had 4x256MB 72-pin SIMMs pulled from some long gone high end system. I tricked out the motherboard with the 1GB of memory and stuck in one of my remaining PCI graphics cards and a PCI Ethernet card. I have a Windows repair flash stick with WINPESE-x64 on it, a rudimentary and stripped down Windows 10. Yes, the Pentium Pro board boots up and runs Windows 10, and accesses the web.

    This is undoubtedly the slowest oldest computer ever to boot and run Windows 10. Response times are the same order of magnitude as watching paint dry.

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