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Computer Networks -- Anatomy of a Classic

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Andrew S. Tanenbaum, author of Computer Networks, talks about his classic book and what he sees as the most significant developments in networking today.
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In the rapidly changing landscape of computer networking, there is one title which practitioners and students alike have relied on for over 20 years as a trusted source of timely information: Computer Networks by Andrew Tanenbaum. The Fourth Edition of this classic was published last fall and is currently on our bestseller list.

To mark this occasion, we thought it appropriate to contact both the author and some of Computer Networks' readers to examine the state of the field and the reasons why this book continues to attract so many loyal fans.

The First Edition of Computer Networks was published in 1980. When asked what was the most significant change he has seen in networking since that time, Andy Tanenbaum replied, "That would have to be the growth of the Internet.

"When the First Edition was published in 1980, the ARPANET, precursor to the Internet, was used by a few universities - it had an 8-bit host number, which allowed a potential of 256 hosts (the actual number then was far less). Back then, no one would have envisioned this being used by a billion persons in 20 years." Tanenbaum also remarked that no one would have predicted that e-mail would have become the killer application - although file transfer technology was there from the beginning. "Today, the daily volume of e-mail is ten times that of snail mail. And twenty years from now, snail mail will likely be used only for niche purposes" observed the author who is Professor of Computer Science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, where he heads the Computer Systems Group. Finally Tanenbaum added: "And then there is the web; people searching for information today are more likely to go Google than a brick and mortars library."

What makes Computer Networks as accessible and timely today as it was back in 1980?

Tanenbaum admits that to him the craft of writing is important : "I try to make my explanations concise and easy to understand. I also believe its important to engage the reader." And readers concur. Professor Gertrude Levine from Fairleigh Dickinson University states:"My students find the book very readable." Professor Thomas Robertazzi of SUNY Stony Brook adds: "Tanenbaum is hard to top in making complex concepts accessible."

In addition to style, it's the coverage of topics and approach which readers find appealing in Computer Networks. According to Cisco's Thomas Nadeau "Tanenbaum's book provides the reader/student with a well-rounded survey of network technology available in few other texts." Nadeau adds: "Many newer texts, for example, start with IP and go from there. It is nice to know about TDM and multiplexing, for example, as a basis for the rest of the technology." The readers of Computer Networks appreciate the fact that this author does not follow trendy approaches such as that of focusing on the application layer to the exclusion of the other layers. Professor Levine comments: "that is not what I feel should be the purpose of this course (a core requirement for our undergraduates). The bottom layers of networks contain material that has not changed in twenty years- students have emailed me to tell me that what they learned in this class is still useful to their work." Professor Michail Schitiu of North Carolina State University adds that Computer Networks "strikes the right balance between general concepts and real protocols, and for this reason I look forward to using this book for many years to come." Ajay Kshemkalyani of the University of Illinois at Chicago also selected the Fourth Edition because of its approach and because it offers students clear explanations of networking concepts.

Computer Networks is also used in training courses for practitioners. Tanenbaum observes, "Networking is a far more rapidly changing field than other areas such as programming languages. Not all professionals have the time to follow every new development in this field. Since many professionals first learned about networking from my book and liked it, they continue to buy new editions in order remain current." In fact, Computer Networks is used in programs aimed at students/practitioners with varied backgrounds ranging from the Harvard University Extension School to Virginia-based Catalyst Consulting. Catalyst's Sheridan Krammer comments that his students are professionals with a cross-section of backgrounds and experience, and that its quite a challenge to find one book which he can use with these students and which keeps up with the changes in networking technology that matter.

When asked about the major changes in the new edition, Tanenbaum states:

"The Fourth Edition has a lot of emphasis on wireless technologies and standards such as 802.11, Bluetooth, broadband wireless, and ad-hoc networks. " Catalyst's Krammer emphasizes that one of the reasons for selecting the new edition of Computer Networks for his training program was the coverage of wireless technologies. In addition to coverage of wireless, Tanenbaum quickly adds that "there is also coverage of gigabit Ethernet, peer-to-peer networks and MPLS. And I added lots of new material on applications including the Web, Internet radio and VoIP. Lastly, there is a new chapter on security with an emphasis on cryptography and transmission." And in fact, academics and practitioners alike report that it's the breadth of coverage of new networking topics which keep them returning to Computer Networks.

In concluding this article we thought it would be instructive to ask Andy Tanenbaum to comment on what he sees as the most significant developments in networking today.

Tanenbaum observes, " I would have to say that developments in wireless networking and ubiquitous computing are quite significant and are having a major impact on how we communicate and work. People are carrying around multiple devices with computing power - lap tops, PDAs, smart cards, cell phones etc. And many of these devices can talk to each other." Of special interest to Tanenbaum are RFID – Radio Frequency Identification – chips which are being tested in the US and which will likely replace bar codes. According to Tanenbaum, "These chips communicate with computers when polled by radio and will allow for the efficient tracking of products through the distribution system right to the customer.

In the near future, shoppers will forgo the checkout counter and be billed automatically via RFID networking." And perhaps when the Fifth Edition of Computer Networks is published, readers will be billed for the book via RFID technology!

About the Author

Andrew S. Tanenbaum has a B.S. Degree from M.I.T. and a Ph.D. from the University of California at Berkeley. He is currently a Professor of Computer Science at the Vrije Universiteit in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, where he heads the Computer Systems Group. He is also Dean of the Advanced School for Computing and Imaging, an interuniversity graduate school doing research on advanced parallel, distributed, and imaging systems. The author of five books, Prof. Tanenbaum is a Fellow of the ACM, a Fellow of the IEEE, a member of the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences, winner of the 1994 ACM Karl V. Karlstrom Outstanding Educator Award, and winner of the 1997 ACM/SIGCSE Award for Outstanding Contributions to Computer Science Education. He is also listed in Who's Who in the World. His home page on the World Wide Web can be found at http://www.cs.vu.nl/~ast/.

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