Merit Network, Inc., is a nonprofit member-governed organization providing high-performance computer networking and related services to educational, government, health care, and nonprofit organizations, primarily in Michigan. Created in 1966, Merit operates the longest running regional computer network in the United States.
Created in 1966 as the Michigan Educational Research Information Triad by Michigan State University (MSU), the University of Michigan (U-M), and Wayne State University (WSU), Merit was created to investigate resource sharing by connecting the mainframe computers at these three Michigan public research universities. Merit’s initial three node packet-switched computer network was operational in October 1972 using custom hardware based on DEC PDP-11 minicomputers and software developed by the Merit staff and the staffs at the three universities. Over the next dozen years the initial network grew as new services such as dial-in terminal support, remote job submission, remote printing, and file transfer were added; as gateways to the national and international Tymnet, Telenet, and Datapac networks were established, as support for the X.25 and TCP/IP protocols was added; as additional computers such as WSU’s MVS system and the UM’s electrical engineering’s VAX running UNIX were attached; and as new universities became Merit members.
Merit’s involvement in national networking activities started in the mid-1980s with connections to the national supercomputing centers and work on the 56 kbit/s National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET), the forerunner of today’s Internet. From 1987 until April 1995, Merit re-engineered and managed the NSFNET backbone service. MichNet, Merit’s regional network in Michigan was attached to NSFNET and in the early 1990s Merit began extending “the Internet” throughout Michigan, offering both direct connect and dial-in services, and upgrading the statewide network from 56 kbit/s to 1.5 Mbit/s, and on to 45, 155, 622 Mbit/s, and eventually 1 and 10 Gbit/s. In 2003 Merit began its transition to a facilities based network, using fiber optic facilities that it shares with its members, that it purchases or leases under long term agreements, or that it builds. In addition to network connectivity services, Merit offers a number of related services within Michigan and beyond, including: Internet2 connectivity, VPN, Network monitoring, Voice over IP (VOIP), Cloud storage, E-mail, Domain Name, Network Time, VMware and Zimbra software licensing, Colocation, Michigan Cyber Range cybersecurity courses, and professional development seminars, workshops, classes, conferences, and meetings.
Creating the network: 1966 to 1973
The Michigan Educational Research Information Triad (MERIT) was formed in the fall of 1966 by Michigan State University (MSU), University of Michigan (U-M), and Wayne State University (WSU). More often known as the Merit Computer Network or simply Merit, it was created to design and implement a computer network connecting the mainframe computers at the universities. In the fall of 1969, after funding for the initial development of the network had been secured, Bertram Herzog was named director for MERIT. Eric Aupperle was hired as senior engineer, and was charged with finding hardware to make the network operational. The National Science Foundation (NSF) and the State of Michigan provided the initial funding for the network. In June 1970, the Applied Dynamics Division of Reliance Electric in Saline, Michigan was contracted to build three Communication Computers or CCs. Each would consist of a Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) PDP-11 computer, dataphone interfaces, and interfaces that would attach them directly to the mainframe computers. The cost was to be slightly less than the $300,000 ($1,828,000, adjusted for inflation) originally budgeted. Merit staff wrote the software that ran on the CCs, while staff at each of the universities wrote the mainframe software to interface to the CCs. The first completed connection linked the IBM S/360-67 mainframe computers running the Michigan Terminal System at WSU and U-M, and was publicly demonstrated on December 14, 1971. The MSU node was completed in October 1972, adding a CDC 6500 mainframe running Scope/Hustler. The network was officially dedicated on May 15, 1973
Expanding the network: 1974 to 1985
In 1974, Herzog returned to teaching in the University of Michigan’s Industrial Engineering Department, and Aupperle was appointed as director.Use of the all uppercase name “MERIT” was abandoned in favor of the mixed case “Merit”.The first network connections were host to host interactive connections which allowed person to remote computer or local computer to remote computer interactions. To this, terminal to host connections, batch connections (remote job submission, remote printing, batch file transfer), and interactive file copy were added. And, in addition to connecting to host computers over custom hardware interfaces, the ability to connect to hosts or other networks over groups of asynchronous ports and via X.25 were added. Merit interconnected with Telenet (later SprintNet) in 1976 to give Merit users dial-in access from locations around the United States. Dial-in access within the U.S. and internationally was further expanded via Merit’s interconnections to Tymnet, ADP’s Autonet, and later still the IBM Global Network as well as Merit’s own expanding network of dial-in sites in Michigan, New York City, and Washington, D.C. In 1978, Western Michigan University (WMU) became the fourth member of Merit (prompting a name change, as the acronym Merit no longer made sense as the group was no longer a triad). To expand the network, the Merit staff developed new hardware interfaces for the Digital PDP-11 based on printed circuit technology. The new system became known as the Primary Communications Processor (PCP), with the earliest PCPs connecting a PDP-10 located at WMU and a DEC VAX running UNIX at U-M’s Electrical Engineering department. A second hardware technology initiative in 1983 produced the smaller Secondary Communication Processors (SCP) based on DEC LSI-11 processors. The first SCP was installed at the Michigan Union in Ann Arbor, creating UMnet, which extended Merit’s network connectivity deeply into the U-M campus. In 1983 Merit’s PCP and SCP software was enhanced to support TCP/IP and Merit interconnected with the ARPANET.
National networking, NSFNET, and the Internet: 1986 to 1995
In 1986 Merit engineered and operated leased lines and satellite links that allowed the University of Michigan to access the supercomputing facilities at Pittsburgh, San Diego, and NCAR. In 1987, Merit, IBM and MCI submitted a winning proposal to NSF to implement a new NSFNET backbone network. The new NSFNET backbone network service began 1 July 1988. It interconnected supercomputing centers around the country at 1.5 megabits per second (T1), 24 times faster than the 56 kilobits-per-second speed of the previous network. The NSFNET backbone grew to link scientists and educators on university campuses nationwide and connect them to their counterparts around the world. The NSFNET project caused substantial growth at Merit, nearly tripling the staff and leading to the establishment of a new 24-hour Network Operations Center at the U-M Computer Center. In September 1990 in anticipation of the NSFNET T3 upgrade and the approaching end of the 5-year NSFNET cooperative agreement, Merit, IBM, and MCI formed Advanced Network and Services (ANS), a new non-profit corporation with a more broadly based Board of Directors than the Michigan-based Merit Network. Under its cooperative agreement with NSF, Merit remained ultimately responsible for the operation of NSFNET, but subcontracted much of the engineering and operations work to ANS. In 1991 the NSFNET backbone service was expanded to additional sites and upgraded to a more robust 45 Mbit/s (T3) based network. The new T3 backbone was named ANSNet and provided the physical infrastructure used by Merit to deliver the NSFNET Backbone Service. On April 30, 1995 the NSFNET project came to an end, when the NSFNET backbone service was decommissioned and replaced by a new Internet architecture with commercial ISPs interconnected at Network Access Points provided by multiple providers across the country.
Bringing the Internet to Michigan: 1985 to 2001
During the 1980s, Merit Network grew to serve eight member universities, with Oakland University joining in 1985 and Central Michigan University, Eastern Michigan University, and Michigan Technological University joining in 1987. In 1990, Merit’s board of directors formally changed the organization’s name to Merit Network, Inc., and created the name MichNet to refer to Merit’s statewide network. The board also approved a staff proposal to allow organizations other than publicly supported universities, referred to as affiliates, to be served by MichNet without prior board approval. 1992 saw major upgrades of the MichNet backbone to use Cisco routers in addition to the PDP-11 and LSI-11 based PCPs and SCPs. This was also the start of relentless upgrades to higher and higher speeds, first from 56 kbit/s to T1 (1.5 Mbit/s) followed by multiple T1s (3.0 to 10.5 Mbit/s), T3 (45 Mbit/s), OC3c (155 Mbit/s), OC12c (622 Mbit/s), and eventually one and ten gigabits (1000 to 10,000 Mbit/s). In 1993 Merit’s first Network Access Server (NAS) using RADIUS (Remote Authentication Dial-In User Service) was deployed. The NASs supported dial-in access separate from the Merit PCPs and SCPs. In 1993 Merit started what would become an eight-year phase out of its aging PCP and SCP technology. By 1998 the only PCPs still in service were supporting Wayne State University’s MTS mainframe host. During their remarkably long twenty-year life cycle the number of PCPs and SCPs in service reached a high of roughly 290 in 1991, supporting a total of about 13,000 asynchronous ports and numerous LAN and WAN gateways. In 1994 the Merit Board endorsed a plan to expand the MichNet shared dial-in service, leading to a rapid expansion of the Internet dial-in service over the next several years.
In 1994 there were 38 shared dial-in sites. By 1996 there were 131 shared dial-in sites and more than 92% of Michigan residents could reach the Internet with a local phone call. And by the end of 2001 there were 10,733 MichNet shared dial-in lines in over 200 Michigan cities plus New York City, Washington, D.C., and Windsor, Ontario, Canada. As an outgrowth of this work, in 1997, Merit created the Authentication, Authorization, and Accounting (AAA) Consortium. During 1994 an expanded K-12 outreach program at Merit helped lead the formation of six regional K-12 groups known as Hubs. The Hubs and Merit applied for and were awarded funding from the Ratepayer fund, which as part of a settlement of an earlier Ameritech of Michigan ratepayer overcharge, had been established by Michigan Public Service Commission to further the K-12 community’s network connectivity.
Transition to the commercial Internet, Internet2 and the vBNS: 1994 to 2005
In 1994, as the NSFNET project was drawing to a close, Merit organized the meetings for the North American Network Operators’ Group (NANOG). NANOG evolved from the NSFNET “Regional-Techs” meetings, where technical staff from the regional networks met to discuss operational issues of common concern with each other and with the Merit engineering staff. At the February 1994 regional techs meeting in San Diego, the group revised its charter to include a broader base of network service providers, and subsequently adopted NANOG as its new name. In 2000, Merit spun off two for-profit companies: NextHop Technologies, which developed and marketed GateD routing software, and Interlink Networks, which specialized in authentication, authorization, and accounting (AAA) software. Eric Aupperle retired as president in 2001, after 27 years at Merit. He was appointed President Emeritus by the Merit board. Hunt Williams became Merit’s new president.
Creating a facilities based network, adding new services: 2003 to the present