HOW IT WORKS

The return of the sneaker net

The other day I happened to use the term “sneaker net” and found that a young colleague didn’t know what I was talking about. True, it’s been a while since the heyday of sneaker nets, but they’re still around and, in fact, are even starting to come back. So for the young folks out there who never had to deal with dial-up, here’s a primer on the term.

What it is: "Sneaker net" is a somewhat comical term that came into fashion in the 1980s when bandwidth was low. It became easier and quicker to simply put a file onto a disk and then walk it over to a new computer to transfer it. This was mostly done by techies wearing sneakers, hence the term. To the ear, it sounds a little bit like Ethernet.

Once bandwidth got plentiful, sneaker nets fell out of fashion. Even the Usain Bolt of techies couldn’t outrace a 10/100 megabits/sec connection for short distances and small files.

But now that files are getting to be hundreds of gigabytes or even terabytes in size, the sneaker net is back. So get those running shoes ready again.

Examples: The SETI@home project, which searches for signs of extraterrestrial life, uses a form of sneaker net to transport massive amounts of data gathered by the radio telescope in Arecibo, Puerto Rico. Data is put onto magnetic tapes and then mailed to Berkeley, Calif., for processing. So it’s the mailman’s sneakers being used.

One of the most radical examples of sneaker net came from employees of a South African company who got tired of the slow transmission speeds they were getting from their provider. In 2009, they tried to transfer 4G of data 60 miles between cities using an ASDL line. At the same time, they put the data on a key drive and used a carrier pigeon to carry it the same distance, so it was sort of of a pigeon toe net. The bird made the flight in 1 hour, 8 minutes and it took another hour to transfer the data off the memory stick. Only 4 percent of the data had been transferred the traditional way by the time the pigeon was done.

Bottom Line: Although they went out of fashion as bandwidth increased, sneaker nets started to come back into vogue as file sizes rose. As long as a techie with a pair of sneakers, or a pigeon in some cases, can get the job done faster than a digital transfer, sneaker nets will live on.

About the Author

John Breeden II is a freelance technology writer for GCN.

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