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Mainlining the Internet

Tonya and I recently put in a direct connection to the Internet, and I promised to pass on some of the details so others would know just how hard it is. The moral of the story is that it’s not at all hard, or even that expensive, but it helps to have some expert help.

I’d considered setting up a direct connection for months, ever since Ed Morin of Northwest Nexus mentioned that a 56K frame relay connection cost about $70 per month from U.S. West plus a several hundred dollar installation fee. Keep in mind that that rate is related to the distance from your eventual destination, so even others in the Seattle area, might find it more or less expensive. However, it is a flat-rate connection so I don’t pay by the byte or anything like that.

The reason it took me so long to get around to setting up the connection is that high speed connections are confusing, and it’s difficult to find someone at the phone company who can help. Other types of connections that might work for you (but which I know little about) include ISDN (it costs 1.5 cents per minute here but is flat rate in some parts of the country), switched 56, dedicated 56K leased lines, and of course faster connections up to T-1 and T-3 lines.

The deciding factor in getting the connection was when Cory Low, one of my co-authors on Internet Starter Kit for Windows, asked why I didn’t have one yet. He’d set his up his several months before and loves it. I admitted that I was confused and short on time, so he graciously volunteered to set everything up with U.S. West for me. Sometimes the best end to procrastination is to have someone do the job for you.

It took U.S. West about a month to get to installing the connection because they had to install a repeater between our house and the central office several miles away. Then one day, the installation person appeared and connected an additional two pairs of wires (four wires all told) that came from the pole in the street to the phone company’s network interface box on the outside of our house. We had some of the right sort of phone wire left over from all the phone and network wiring we’d done in the house with our friend Sandro Menzel, and since there was only one pair of wires left over from the original four-pair wire (two phone lines and one LocalTalk network), we ran another four-pair wire from the network interface box into my office. Luckily, it’s easy to run wire under our house. We ran all this wire ourselves because we knew how to do it (especially since we could borrow Sandro’s staple gun) and because the phone company charges $80 per hour to do in-house wiring.

The wiring from the phone company’s network interface box went under the house and up into my office, but I didn’t have the proper RJ-48 8-pin jack to plug the wire into. The guy from the phone company (who had to come twice due to mistakes that had been made up the street in the cross-connect point) told me what to get, but after I hung out with him for a while and chatted about connections, he decided he liked me and gave me the jack I needed. Rule number one about installing phone company stuff: Be nice to the installation people and they’ll go out of their way to help you.

I attached the jack to the proper color wires (don’t guess, there are specific colors you should use to avoid confusing the phone company folks – they’ll tell you). Unfortunately, the connection still didn’t work, so a few days later another installation guy came out to see if he could fix it. He kept backing up from my jack, to the network interface box, to the pole outside the house, to the cross-connect pole at the top of the street, until he finally figured out they’d accidentally installed a defective repeater (remember the repeater?). A quick swap, and he was done. (Actually, he found another problem involving a "longitudinal imbalance" at the cross-connect point that I didn’t understand at all, but he fixed it as well.)

Next came Jim Barrett, a U.S. West technician who is also in the local Mac user group (which was good, since he understood our planned uses for the connection). He tested the line to make sure it was properly conditioned, which amounted to unpacking his $50,000 protocol analyzer with a built-in 80386 PC, connecting it to the jack, running a program, and saying, "Yup, it works fine." He also gave me an additional Ethernet crimp connector when he heard I only had two and thus couldn’t afford to ruin one, even though I’d never built an Ethernet cable before. See rule number one. Interestingly, he mentioned that the frame relay group at U.S. West is being completely overwhelmed by the demand for these connections – at those rates I’m not surprised.

That took care of the installation of the 56K frame relay line into the house. At that point, we only had LocalTalk for internal networking, and we wanted Ethernet to connect up to the Internet (I presume it would have been possible to get a LocalTalk-to-Ethernet router as well and stick with our LocalTalk, but there seemed to be no reason to go with the slower LocalTalk when the entire point of the exercise was to get fast Internet access). Running Ethernet required deciding on an Ethernet cable type – twisted pair, thin, or thick. There didn’t seem to be any reason to mess with thick, and twisted pair requires a hub and is (I’m told) mainly useful when devices are frequently added to and removed from the network. So we went for thin coaxial cable, and ran a long length between our offices under the house. That required attaching the crimp connectors to the coax cable with Cory’s cutter and crimper, which was easy after I ruined the requisite first one (and had to resort to the one Jim gave me). For the rest of the cabling in the offices, we used pre-made ten foot cables and T-connectors, with the occasional barrel connector to combine two cables into a twenty foot cable length.

Of course, you have to connect the cable to the Macs, and for that we bought Asante AAUI transceivers for the Power Mac 7100 and the Centris 660AV, an Asante Ethernet card for the SE/30, and a Dayna SCSI/Port SCSI Ethernet adapter for Tonya’s Duo 230 (which has a MiniDock). Once the cable was run and the adapters and transceivers all installed, with appropriate drivers for the SE/30 and Duo 230, everything was ready.

The next part was to connect up the CSU/DSU and router. I’m no networking expert, but think of a CSU/DSU as a digital modem of sorts, and a router as a device that connects two dissimilar networks, in this case the Internet and our Ethernet network. You can’t use just any router since it must support the appropriate type of connection, frame relay in my case. Because of that, I didn’t shop around, but bought the router my provider, Northwest Nexus, recommended and sold, a Livingston PortMaster IRX, which cost about $2,000 (it even supports PPP if I attach a modem to it). They also sold me a BAT Technologies CSU/DSU for about $300, although I gather there are fancier, CSU/DSUs that are much more expensive.

I’m not sure what Cory did to configure the router, but since it only took about five minutes after we connected to it using the PowerBook 100, a serial cable, and a terminal program, I can’t imagine it was all that hard. Cory gave me a fair amount of information that he’d gotten from Northwest Nexus (who had to set things up on their end) – I presume any Internet provider would do the same.

After bringing the router online, we configured MacTCP on each Mac with the appropriate gateway IP address (the router’s IP address) and the appropriate IP address for each Mac. Cory recommended leaving the first ten IP addresses in our Class C address (204.57.157.* in our case) for network devices like routers, and then use numbers above that for the Macs.

Since then, everything has worked. We no longer dial out – MacTCP programs connect instantly. Transmission speeds in Anarchie and Fetch went from about 1,600 bps via modem and a PPP account to around 6,000 bps via the 56K line. Web browsers are more fun to use, and I don’t worry about retrieving large files via FTP any more.

The only irritation was that the PowerBook 100 and our laser printers are LocalTalk devices, and it’s a pain to switch from Ethernet to LocalTalk in the Network control panel every time we want to print. Cory lent me his unused copy of the Apple Internet Router program, which I installed on the SE/30 in about five minutes, and that’s worked fine for connecting the LocalTalk and Ethernet networks. I’m leaning toward replacing it with a microBridge/TCP from Sonic Systems because that will off-load the processing from the SE/30 and provide TCP/IP access to the PowerBook 100 as well, something that would require the Apple IP Gateway software extension for the Apple Internet Router. Besides, Cory will probably want his Apple Internet Router software back sometime.

Aside from the speed, the main neat thing I’ve done is to install Timbuktu Pro (in case I want to control it from another Mac on the network or via the Internet while I’m travelling – see TidBITS-241), MailShare, FTPd, and MacHTTP on the SE/30, which is called <> (all the Macs are named for species of penguins). MailShare is a SMTP and POP mail server from Glenn Anderson that works well with Eudora (but doesn’t support the autoReply function that I use so heavily in uAccess, which is why I haven’t switched my incoming email yet). Peter Lewis’s FTPd provides FTP and Gopher services, but because of the load on anonymous FTP, I only set up Gopher for public access. Tonya expressed interest in creating her own home page in HTML, so I set up Chuck Shotton’s MacHTTP for that. Other than fussing with System 7 file sharing privileges for FTPd, I don’t think any of these programs took more than about five minutes to install and configure – a friend who had just spent four days fighting to configure sendmail on his Unix box was a touch jealous, I think. mail/mail-share-10b8.hqx ftpd-23.hqx -http-13.hqx

As far as the money goes, we spent about $3,000 on hardware. The installation of the 56K line cost $365, and as I said, the monthly cost for the line is about $70. The account with Northwest Nexus would cost $300 to set up and $300 per month, but they wanted to sponsor TidBITS on regular basis in exchange for one of each of their Internet accounts (since I have to do so much testing for the books). Overall, I think it should be possible to set up this sort of connection for under $4,000 capital costs and $500 per month, which is a lot for an individual, but not that much for even a small business that has real use for the Internet.

I recommend that if you want to set up such a connection that you talk to your local Internet provider (and I’d use a personal account with them for a while before jumping into a dedicated connection, so you can decide if you like their services) to find a network consultant in your area who can help with the technical details. It’s not impossible for a novice to set up such a connection, but coordinating the phone company and the provider and your network can be a bit tricky if you don’t know all the variables. I certainly didn’t, and couldn’t have done it without Cory Low’s assistance.

Interestingly, I don’t know many Internet resources that will help you with this process, perhaps in part because it’s different in every locale. However, there is a mailing list called inet-access at that might be of some help. Send email to <[email protected]> to join, and you might also check out the Usenet newsgroup <alt.internet.access>.

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