Before the internet there was DECnet

Before the internet there was… DECnet.

DECnet was a private company run network by a large American corporation that linked all of its sites worldwide, some 50,000 machines. It wasn’t TCP/IP, it was something else that was proprietary to Digital.

I was on that network, and it was text based. It let us send text emails to each other and had something called VAXnotes (later DECnotes). This is like Reddit in some ways but designed for work purposes and some social sites. As it was text based, there were no images.

Another server was called FRIENDS and was a public server. I went on there just before a trip to the States and asked if anyone wanted to meet up for a meal. On the day, I got picked up at a Digital office in the States and went to a pizza place for a meal. I met people I only knew from their node names, like XCELR8::JONES (DECnet was six characters for the node).

The lady running FRIENDS met me and gave me a bear hug - she ‘woobied’ me, as she called it. Now, being a typical Brit, hugging in public is somewhat awkward for me, but it was OK.

For one of my projects, I had access to the STAR cluster in the States. This is where VAX/VMS was being developed. I came into work one day to find my access had been terminated… because of the Chaos Computer Club had attacked our network and stole the source code for VAX/VMS. Early days of hackers. My project got canned as I lost access, not being in the States.

Another time we came to work to find our machines infected with a bogus print process. It was replicating itself across our network of interconnected machines. The guys in the States released an anti-virus to track down and kill the bogus print processes. Digital started installing something called INSPECT - a virus checker - only machines running INSPECT could be connected to their network.

Just before I left Digital TCP/IP had arrived and was making inroads. We had AltaVista, a massive search engine that got dwarfed by Google. Google was known as Deja News back then, and was a USENET site but renamed itself and moved onto search.

I very nearly transferred to the States, to sit in AltaVista HQ but Digital were collapsing, as they couldn’t make the transition from mainframe computing to PC’s - not without over engineering machines and charging a premium for it.

The group I worked for were sold to another company. A lot of us left, I remember the day I said goodbye to the head of the group. He was seriously pissed off, but wished me well.

There is an archive of the VAXnotes from Digital here: List of notesfiles (conferences) that were indexed

The FRIENDS one is Information about NOTESfile vaxcat::friends


Interesting, I had heard of DECnet, but knew nothing about it. Thanks for the story.

Today there’s HECnet which is the “Hobbyist DECnet”.


Searching for HECnet finds many stale links, because servers recently moved. Here’s a fresh link:


We were AKRON:: in the Akron Ohio (AOO) office. There was CLOVAX:: in Cleveland (CLO) and CSOA1:: in Columbus (CSO). There were others in the Ohio Valley district that I can’t remember (maybe OVDVAX::slight_smile: After DEC, for me there were clusters of Alphas where I worked that we used DECnet to synchronize the data commons between the production systems and the development system. This was still being used when I retired a year ago. It was handy to have around just to do DECy types of things.

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I was in the long since closed REO office (DECpark, Reading). I started on the IPG cluster (VOGON/NOGOV in area 42). I seem to remember working on nodes like ECLAIR, DECEDI etc.

Ah, the memories.

DECnet, writing and teaching the internals course was so much fun.

In DEC VAXnotes was a big thing. Fun to see those archives. Work and hobby mixed nicely.
utroff, utes01

DECnotes - List of notes made by UTROFF::OTTEN (

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And let us not forget BITNET!

BITNET was originally on IBM, but became MUCH more popular on DEC machines. I had it in uni circa the late 1980s and I did not know anyone on DECnet WA.

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Digital was on DECnet internally, funny, never heard of BITNET

Yes, it was all DECnet internally. With a gateway to the internet for email, usenet. Early in the 80ties I could post on the first few usenet groups from my DEC account.

Oddly, I would have thought DECnet was the name of the protocol for connecting VMS systems, even inside a private company or university. Is that not the case? Or maybe the word serves two purposes?

The most reliable source on this new-fangled Internet thing has it as follows:

DECnet is a suite of network protocols created by Digital Equipment Corporation. Originally released in 1975 in order to connect two PDP-11 minicomputers, it evolved into one of the first peer-to-peer network architectures, thus transforming DEC into a networking powerhouse in the 1980s. Initially built with three layers, it later (1982) evolved into a seven-layer OSI-compliant networking protocol.


While the DECnet protocols were designed entirely by Digital Equipment Corporation, DECnet Phase II (and later) were open standards with published specifications, and several implementations were developed outside DEC, including ones for FreeBSD and Linux. DECnet code in the Linux kernel was marked as orphaned on February 18, 2010.

(…) strictly speaking, non-routed DIGITAL protocols such as LAT, SCS, AMDS, LAST/LAD are not DECnet protocols and are not part of the DIGITAL Network Architecture.

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Regarding specific networks implemented using DECnet, our trustworthy source lists the following:

  • DEC Easynet
    DEC’s internal corporate network was a DECnet network called Easynet, which had evolved from DEC’s Engineering Net (E-NET).

  • The DECnet Internet
    DECnet was used at various scientific research centers which linked their networks to form an international network called the DECnet Internet.

    CCNET (Computer Center Network) was a DECnet network that connected the campuses of various universities in the eastern regions of the United States during the 1980s.

And the following “Hobbyist DECnet networks”

  • HECnet
  • Italian Retro DECnet

You are correct. Decent was replaced by TCP/IP, sadly. In some respects it was faster (at the time) and more robust.

OpenVMS is still in use today, I still d some consulting work on occasion for companies still running it.

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DECnet was definitely used outside DEC, at least at universities. I remember Symbolics, which rode the networked workstation wave starting with MIT’s pre-Ethernet CHAOSnet physical layer (no evil there), implemented a DECnet client too, one of a slew of proprietary networking protocols that make them a kind of an equal-opportunity “Babel” of workstations, able to connect to any number of vendors’ file severs, mail servers, etc. though this was long before the WWW.

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