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Dated: Sep. 23, 2006

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Tangled History

Work For University Winds Up At Cisco

Cisco Systems was founded in December 1984 by two members of Stanford's computer support staff: Len Bosack, who was in charge of the computer science department's computers, and Sandy Lerner, who managed the Graduate School of Business' computers.

Cisco was to become one of the nation's fastest growing companies by providing the networking equipment that connected the Internet. But its early history was bound up with the networking of the Stanford campus. That began informally in 1980-81 after the Xerox Palo Alto Research Center gave Stanford some of its Alto workstations and Ethernet networking boards.

The Alto was far in advance of other workstations (it would soon show Apple the way to the Macintosh), but it was the Ethernet technology that inspired Stanford staffers.

In a warren of offices under Margaret Jacks Hall and the Stanford Quad that one veteran described as "straight out of the Hobbit," staff members and graduate students developed the technology to link the computer systems in Stanford's schools and departments so they could all talk to one another.

Their crowning creation was a small box that functioned as a multiprotocol router, so named because it enabled computers of varied make, with different protocols, to communicate and to access the early Internet. They called it the "Blue Box" for the color of its case. Inside was a collection of parts that reflected the genius of the basement beneath Margaret Jacks Hall and several other departments on campus.

The box evolved from a request by Ralph Gorin, director of computer facilities from 1979 to 1983, for a "network extension cord," something that could increase the distance between networked computers. "And it evolved," Gorin recalled. "I wanted an extension cord; they gave me a multiple outlet strip."

The box's computer board was one that a graduate student, Andy Bechtolsheim, had designed for a network workstation for engineers (he went on to found Sun Microsystems). The box contained networking boards developed by several staff members and graduate students, including Bosack.

The box's software -- a crucial component -- was written at Stanford's medical school by William Yeager, a staff research engineer.

Yeager had already written a small routing program to connect computers at the medical center with those in the computer science department. That multiprotocol network linked Alto workstations, mainframes, mini-computers and printers.

Now he was assigned to write an enhanced version for the Blue Box. The result was a program that could route several protocols including the burgeoning Internet protocol, permitting data to be exchanged among workstations, mainframe terminals, printers and servers.

The router running Yeager's software became the standard at Stanford, with about two dozen Blue Boxes scattered across campus. There was growing demand for more, from not only Stanford but other universities. The staff struggled to keep up with demand.

In 1985, Stanford undertook a more formal project to network the campus. It was to use only the new Internet protocol. That spring, Yeager recalls, two support staff members, Bosack and Kirk Lougheed, asked him for his original program so they could modify it for the new system. Bosack and Lougheed removed its ability to route non-Internet protocols, keeping its network operating system and related features and improving its Internet capabilities. Later, they added back other protocols.

Yeager said he didn't know that Bosack had recently incorporated Cisco and asked Stanford for permission to sell the Blue Box commercially. He had been denied.

Yeager, looking back, says that Bosack and Lougheed were refining the product that Cisco ultimately sold. "They did this on Stanford time, and thus, debugged what were to be Cisco routers," he said.

Despite Stanford's "no," by late 1985 Bosack and his wife, Lerner, were assembling routers in their living room in Atherton. According to former and current Stanford support-staff members, their design was strikingly similar to an updated Blue Box that had been sketched out in Margaret Jacks Hall during a networking group meeting.

"There was no difference" between the Stanford router and the Cisco router, said Nick Veizades, who worked with Yeager at the medical center. "The software changed a little bit, but not very much."

Yet at the time, Veizades recalls, he thought Bosack's plan to sell routers was quixotic at best. "We thought he was out of his cotton-pickin' mind to start Cisco," he said. "We didn't think it was going to fly whatsoever. Those are the early things of the Internet."

But Cisco was selling software and the hardware to run it on, something like a personal computer, that people were comfortable paying for. "Cisco cleverly sold software that plugged into the wall, had a fan and got warm," Gorin said. "People had a long history of buying things that plugged into the wall, made noises and got warm."

By then, many improvements had been made to Yeager's software. "The real value of the Yeager software was the basic operating system," Lougheed wrote years later. "It wasn't particularly sophisticated, but it was quite usable and served as an excellent starting point."

Yeager has watched with some unhappiness as newspapers and magazines, echoing one another, ignored his contributions and credited all the work to Bosack and Lerner.

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