From 1969 up through the early 80s, the Internet used general-purpose Honeywell minicomputers for its core routers. At some point after that, purpose-built machines started being used.

What was the first purpose-built core router? I'm interested in the name and year of course, but also if possible in technical specifics: what were the specifications of the machine, and how exactly did it get the performance boost that justified its invention, why did the Internet switch to dedicated routers then and not before or after.

  • a "dedicated router" is actually a general-purpose machine where all purposes except for routing have been hidden or otherwise made unavailable to the user. Ever seen a signboard or a cash machine that had crashed and was showing a Windows logon screen instead of what it was supposed to? It's the same idea -- on the outside it's a dedicated machine but on the inside it's just a computer with some special peripherals. The special-ness of the peripherals is mostly what makes the thing "dedicated" – Ken Gober Apr 27 '17 at 15:54
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    Cisco routers, for example, have a lot of hardware that offloads much of the processing of packets and routing to ASICs instead of the CPU handling. OP may be asking what is the first router to perform some functions in specialized hardware versus the CPU. – LawrenceC Apr 27 '17 at 17:26
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    @LawrenceC Right. An analogy from a domain with which I am more familiar: the Amiga (1985) was the first mass-market computer to feature graphics acceleration hardware (by a reasonable definition thereof) e.g. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blitter which was (I forget the exact number) times faster than the 68000 CPU at performing bitplane operations - that's the sort of answer I'm hoping for. – rwallace Apr 27 '17 at 17:33
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    @rwallace I don't actually know what the first one was, but I'd bet that the 'special peripherals' were things like packet checksum offload, hardware-assisted fragmentation/reassembly, scatter/gather DMA (to allow a packet to be forwarded in-place without copying from a receive buffer to a transmit buffer), special buses or lattice switches (to allow packets to be moved quickly when accessing them in-place wasn't possible), and associative memories or hardware address hashing to allow for fast routing decisions (useful on routers with very large routing tables). – Ken Gober Apr 27 '17 at 17:48
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    All active network components but the simplest types of unmanaged switch/hub/repeater are in the end computers with special coprocessors :) So it's computing isn't it? – rackandboneman Apr 27 '17 at 22:08

There are two well-documented computing devices that can lay claim to being the earliest examples of purpose-built Internet routers - The Stanford "Blue Box" router and the "Fuzzball" router.

The "Blue Box" is associated with Cisco Systems because the two founders of Cisco were Stanford employees, and used it as the basis for their first commercial product. It was originally developed by William Yeager as software for the PDP/11 to provide multi-protocol routing amongst networks on the Stanford Campus. Development began in 1981, but by 1985 the "Blue Box" router was running dedicated software developed by Yeager on dedicated Motorola 68000 CPU boards with 256KB of RAM also developed at Stanford by Andy Bechtolsheim, a future cofounder of Sun Microsystems. Also by 1985, Stanford was one of the major nodes on the growing ARPANET/NSFNet/Internet. While not particularly designated as "core" routing nodes, the "Blue Box" routers at Stanford likely handled as much traffic at the time as a core router, since they were gateways for the biggest edge node.

The "Fuzzball" router was also developed in 1985, and according to the U.S. National Science Foundation was the first true router for core usage. It was developed by David Mills under a grant from NSF and was used in backbone routing for NSFNet. Like with the "Blue Box", it was a specialty OS (which has the namesake "Fuzzball") purpose-built for routing and running on DEC LSI-11 hardware.

While both these early computers can satisfy being called the first dedicated router and a core router, it is mostly true that the "Blue Box" of 1985 was more of a dedicated router, having purpose-built hardware and software, and the "Fuzzball" was more of a core router, since it was in that role for the NSFNet, even though it ran on more generic hardware than the "Blue Box".

It should also be noted that these were very early examples, and pre-date the competitive push among companies like Cisco to make truly high-speed routers. Naturally, these later routers continued to use purpose-built OS software, but added ASIC and custom peripheral hardware to speed packet processing. Of course, Cisco Systems was a leader in this regard, and their device lineage clearly goes back to the Stanford "Blue Box".

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