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Packet switching is a digital networking communications method that groups all transmitted data – regardless of content, type, or structure – into suitably sized blocks, called packets.
|Circuit mode (constant bandwidth)|
|Statistical multiplexing (variable bandwidth)|
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Packet switching features delivery of variable bitrate data streams (sequences of packets) over a shared network which allocates transmission resources as needed using statistical multiplexing or dynamic bandwidth allocation techniques. When traversing network adapters, switches, routers, and other network nodes, packets are buffered and queued, resulting in variable delay and throughput depending on the network's capacity and the traffic load on the network.
Packet switching contrasts with another principal networking paradigm, circuit switching, a method which sets up a limited number of dedicated connections of constant bit rate and constant delay between nodes for exclusive use during the communication session. In cases where traffic fees are charged (as opposed to flat rate), for example in cellular communication services, circuit switching is characterized by a fee per unit of connection time, even when no data is transferred, while packet switching is characterized by a fee per unit of information transmitted (characters, packets, messages, …).
Packet mode communication may be utilized with or without intermediate forwarding nodes (packet switches or routers). Packets are normally forwarded by intermediate network nodes asynchronously using first-in, first-out buffering, but may be forwarded according to some scheduling discipline for fair queuing, traffic shaping, or for differentiated or guaranteed quality of service, such as weighted fair queuing or leaky bucket. In case of a shared physical medium (radio, 10BASE5 or thick Ethernet, …), the packets may be delivered according to a multiple access scheme.
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First proposed for military uses in the early 1960s and implemented on small networks in 1968, packet switching became one of the fundamental networking technologies behind the Internet and most local area networks.
The concept of switching small blocks of data was first explored independently by Paul Baran at the RAND Corporation in the US and Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory (NPL) in the UK in the early to mid-1960s.Abbate 2000
Leonard Kleinrock conducted early research in queueing theory which proved important in packet switching, and published a book in the related field of digital message switching (without the packets) in 1961; he also later played a leading role in building and management of the world's first packet-switched network, the ARPANET.
Baran developed the concept of message block switching during his research at the RAND Corporation for the US Air Force into survivable communications networks, first presented to the Air Force in the summer of 1961 as briefing B-265 then published as RAND Paper P-2626 in 1962 and then including and expanding somewhat within a series of eleven papers titled On Distributed Communications in 1964. Baran's P-2626 paper described a general architecture for a large-scale, distributed, survivable communications network. The paper focuses on three key ideas: first, use of a decentralized network with multiple paths between any two points; and second, dividing complete user messages into what he called message blocks (later called packets); then third, delivery of these messages by store and forward switching.
Baran's study made its way to Robert Taylor and J.C.R. Licklider at the Information Processing Technology Office, both wide-area network evangelists, and it helped influence Lawrence Roberts to adopt the technology when Taylor put him in charge of development of the ARPANET.
Baran's work was similar to the research performed independently by Donald Davies at the National Physical Laboratory, UK. In 1965, Davies developed the concept of packet-switched networks and proposed development of a UK wide network. He gave a talk on the proposal in 1966, after which a person from the Ministry of Defence (MoD) told him about Baran's work. A member of Davies' team (Roger Scantlebury) met Lawrence Roberts at the 1967 ACM Symposium on Operating System Principles, bringing the two groups together. Scantlebury urged Roberts to use the highest speeds possible to reduce latency.
Interestingly, Davies had chosen some of the same parameters for his original network design as Baran, such as a packet size of 1024 bits. In 1966 Davies proposed that a network should be built at the laboratory to serve the needs of NPL and prove the feasibility of packet switching. The NPL Data Communications Network entered service in 1970. Roberts and the ARPANET team took the name "packet switching" itself from Davies's work.
The first computer network and packet switching network deployed for computer resource sharing was the Octopus Network at the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory that began connecting four Control Data 6600 computers to several shared storage devices (including an IBM 2321 Data Cell in 1968 and an IBM Photostore in 1970) and to several hundred Teletype Model 33 ASR terminals for time sharing use starting in 1968.
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|Computer network types by spatial scope|
Two major packet switching modes exist:
In the first case each packet includes complete addressing or routing information. The packets are routed individually, sometimes resulting in different paths and out-of-order delivery. In the second case a connection is defined and preallocated in each involved node during a connection setup phase before any packet is transferred. The packets include a connection identifier rather than address information and are delivered in order. Some connectionless protocols are Ethernet, IP, and UDP; connection oriented packet-switching protocols include X.25, Frame relay, Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), and TCP.
In connection-oriented networks, each packet is labeled with a connection ID rather than an address. Address information is only transferred to each node during a connection set-up phase, when the route to the destination is discovered and an entry is added to the switching table in each network node through which the connection passes. The signalling protocols used allow the application to specify its requirements and the network to specify what capacity etc. is available, and acceptable values for service parameters to be negotiated. Routing a packet is very simple, as it just requires the node to look up the ID in the table. The packet header can be small, as it only needs to contain the ID and any information (such as length, timestamp, or sequence number) which is different for different packets.
In connectionless networks, each packet is labeled with a destination address, source address, and port numbers; it may also be labeled with the sequence number of the packet. This precludes the need for a dedicated path to help the packet find its way to its destination, but means that much more information is needed in the packet header, which is therefore larger, and this information needs to be looked up in power-hungry content-addressable memory. Each packet is dispatched and may go via different routes; potentially, the system has to do as much work for every packet as the connection-oriented system has to do in connection set-up, but with less information as to the application's requirements. At the destination, the original message/data is reassembled in the correct order, based on the packet sequence number. Thus a virtual connection, also known as a virtual circuit or byte stream is provided to the end-user by a transport layer protocol, although intermediate network nodes only provides a connectionless network layer service.
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Packet switching is used to optimize the use of the channel capacity available in digital telecommunication networks such as computer networks, to minimize the transmission latency (the time it takes for data to pass across the network), and to increase robustness of communication.
The best-known use of packet switching is the Internet and most local area networks. The Internet is implemented by the Internet Protocol Suite using a variety of Link Layer technologies. For example, Ethernet and Frame Relay are common. Newer mobile phone technologies (e.g., GPRS, I-mode) also use packet switching.
X.25 is a notable use of packet switching in that, despite being based on packet switching methods, it provided virtual circuits to the user. These virtual circuits carry variable-length packets. In 1978, X.25 provided the first international and commercial packet switching network, the International Packet Switched Service (IPSS). Asynchronous Transfer Mode (ATM) also is a virtual circuit technology, which uses fixed-length cell relay connection oriented packet switching.
Datagram packet switching is also called connectionless networking because no connections are established. Technologies such as Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS) and the resource reservation protocol (RSVP) create virtual circuits on top of datagram networks. Virtual circuits are especially useful in building robust failover mechanisms and allocating bandwidth for delay-sensitive applications.
MPLS and its predecessors, as well as ATM, have been called "fast packet" technologies. MPLS, indeed, has been called "ATM without cells". Modern routers, however, do not require these technologies to be able to forward variable-length packets at multigigabit speeds across the network.
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Both X.25 and Frame Relay provide connection-oriented packet switching, also known as virtual circuit switching. A major difference between X.25 and Frame Relay packet switching is that X.25 is a reliable protocol, based on node-to-node automatic repeat request, while Frame Relay is a non-reliable protocol, maximum packet length is 1000 bytes. Any retransmissions must be carried out by higher layer protocols. The X.25 protocol is a network layer protocol, and is part of the X.25 protocol suite, also known as the OSI protocol suite. It was widely used in switching networks during the 1980s and early 1990s, for example as an alternative to circuit mode terminal switching, and for automated teller machines. Frame relay is a further development of X.25. The simplicity of Frame Relay made it considerably faster and more cost effective than X.25 packet switching. Frame relay is a data link layer protocol, and does not provide logical addresses and routing. It is only used for "semi-permanent" connections, while X.25 connections also can be established for each communication session. Frame Relay was used to interconnect LANs or LAN segments, mainly in the 1990s by large companies that had a requirement to handle heavy telecommunications traffic across wide area networks.:250 Despite the benefits of frame relay packet switching, many international companies are staying with the X.25 standard. In the United States, X.25 packet switching was used heavily in government and financial networks that use mainframe applications. Many companies did not intend to cross over to Frame Relay packet switching because it is more cost effective to use X.25 on slower networks. In certain parts of the world, particularly in Asia-Pacific and South America regions, X.25 was the only technology available.
The history of packet switched networks can be divided into three overlapping eras:
ARPANET and SITA HLN became operational in 1969. Before the introduction of X.25 in 1973, about twenty different network technologies were developed. There was a debate about the merits of two drastically different views as to proper division of labor between the hosts and the network. In the datagram system the host must detect loss or duplication of packets. Transmission Control Protocol /Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) is the best known example of a host to datagram protocol. In the virtual call system, the network guarantees sequenced delivery of data to the host. This results in a simpler host interface with less functionality than in the datagram model. X.25 is the best known virtual call protocol.
Inexpensive minicomputers were an important component in the early networks. In some cases custom I/O devices were added to allow inexpensive or exotic attachments to communication lines.
AppleTalk was a proprietary suite of networking protocols developed by Apple Inc. for their Mac computers. AppleTalk included a number of features that allowed local area networks to be connected with no prior setup or the need for a centralized router or server of any sort. Connecting together AppleTalk equipped systems would automatically assign addresses, update the distributed namespace, and configure any required inter-networking routing. It was a plug-n-play system.
AppleTalk was released for the original Macintosh in 1985, and was the primary protocol used by Apple devices through the 1980s and 90s. Versions were also released for the IBM PC and compatibles, and the Apple IIGS. AppleTalk support was also available in most networked printers (especially laser printers), some file servers and a number of routers. AppleTalk became unsupported in 2009, due largely to the raise of the Internet and its use of the TCP/IP protocols.
This is the principal survivor from the early era. TCP/IP, which was an important component of ARPANET2, was chosen for use in NSFNET which eventually became the Internet.
BNRNET was a network which Bell Northern Research developed for internal use. It initially had only one host but was designed to support many hosts. BNR later made major contributions to the CCITT X.25 project. 
The CYCLADES packet switching network was a French research network designed and directed by Louis Pouzin. First demonstrated in 1973, it was developed to explore alternatives to the initial ARPANET design and to support network research generally. It was the first network to make the hosts responsible for the reliable delivery of data, rather than the network itself, using unreliable datagrams and associated end-to-end protocol mechanisms. Ideas from this network were later incorporated into the ARPANET.
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. The DECnet protocols were designed entirely by Digital Equipment Corporation. However, DECnet Phase II (and later) were open standards with published specifications, and several implementations were developed outside DEC, including one for Linux.
This was an experimental network from Nippon PTT. It mixed circuit switching and packet switching. It was succeeded by DDX-2.
European Informatics Network was a project to link several national networks. It became operational in 1976.
EPSS (Experimental Packet Switching System) was an experiment of the UK Post Office. Ferranti supplied the hardware and software. The handling of link control messages (acknowledgements and flow control) was different from that of most other networks and is not fully explained in the published literature.  
As General Electric Information Services (GEIS), General Electric was a major international provider of information services. The company originally designed a telephone network to serve as its internal (albeit continent-wide) voice telephone network.
In 1965, at the instigation of Warner Sinback, a data network based on this voice-phone network was designed to connect GE's four computer sales and service centers (Schenectady, Phoenix, Chicago, and Phoenix) to facilitate a computer time-sharing service, apparently the world's first commercial online service. (In addition to selling GE computers, the centers were computer service bureaus, offering batch processing services. They lost money from the beginning, and Sinback, a high-level marketing manager, was given the job of turning the business around. He decided that a time-sharing system, based on Kemney's work at Dartmouth—which used a computer on loan from GE—could be profitable. Warner was right.)
After going international some years later, GEIS created a network data center near Cleveland, Ohio. Very little has been published about the internal details of their network. (Though it has been stated by some that Tymshare copied the GEIS system to create their network, Tymnet.) The design was hierarchal with redundant communication links.  
IPSANET was a semi-private network constructed by I. P. Sharp Associates to serve their time-sharing customers. It became operational in May 1976.
Internetwork Packet Exchange (IPX) and Sequenced Packet Exchange (SPX) are Novell networking protocols derived from Xerox Network Systems' IDP and SPP protocols, respectively. They were used primarily on networks using the Novell NetWare operating systems.
The Merit Network was formed in 1966 as the Michigan Educational Research Information Triad to explore computer networking between three of Michigan's public universities as a means to help the state's educational and economic development. With initial support from the State of Michigan and the National Science Foundation (NSF), the packet-switched network was first demonstrated in December 1971 when an interactive host to host connection was made between the IBM mainframe computer systems at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor and Wayne State University in Detroit. In October 1972 connections to the CDC mainframe at Michigan State University in East Lansing completed the triad. Over the next several years in addition to host to host interactive connections the network was enhanced to support terminal to host connections, host to host batch connections (remote job submission, remote printing, batch file transfer), interactive file transfer, gateways to the Tymnet and Telenet public data networks, X.25 host attachments, gateways to X.25 data networks, Ethernet attached hosts, and eventually TCP/IP and additional public universities in Michigan join the network. All of this set the stage for Merit's role in the NSFNET project starting in the mid-1980s.
Octopus was a local network at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory. It connected sundry hosts at the lab to interactive terminals and various computer peripherals including a bulk storage system.   
The PARC Universal Packet (PUP or Pup) was one of the two earliest internetwork protocol suites; it was created by researchers at Xerox PARC in the mid-1970s. The entire suite provided routing and packet delivery, as well as higher level functions such as a reliable byte stream, along with numerous applications. Further developments led to Xerox Network Systems (XNS).
RCP was an experimental network created by the French PTT. It was used to gain experience with packet switching technology before the specification of Transpac was frozen. RCP was a virtual-circuit network in contrast to CYCLADES which was based on datagrams. RCP emphasised terminal to host and terminal to terminal connection; CYCLADES was concerned with host-to-host communication. TRANSPAC was introduced as an X.25 network. RCP influenced the specification of X.25   
"The experimental packet-switched Nordic telecommunication network SCANNET was implemented in Nordic technical libraries in 70's, and it included first Nordic electronic journal Extemplo. Libraries were also among first ones in universities to accommodate microcomputers for public use in early 80's." 
SITA is a consortium of airlines. Their High Level Network became operational in 1969 at about the same time as ARPANET. It carried interactive traffic and message-switching traffic. As with many non-academic networks very little has been published about it. 
Systems Network Architecture (SNA) is IBM's proprietary networking architecture created in 1974. An IBM customer could acquire hardware and software from IBM and lease private lines from a common carrier to construct a private network.
Telenet was the first FCC-licensed public data network in the United States. It was founded by former ARPA IPTO director Larry Roberts as a means of making ARPANET technology public. He had tried to interest AT&T in buying the technology, but the monopoly's reaction was that this was incompatible with their future. Bolt, Beranack and Newman (BBN) provided the financing. It initially used ARPANET technology but changed the host interface to X.25 and the terminal interface to X.29. Telenet designed these protocols and helped standardize them in the CCITT. Telenet was incorporated in 1973 and started operations in 1975. It went public in 1979 and was then sold to GTE.
Tymnet was an international data communications network headquartered in San Jose, CA that utilized virtual call packet switched technology and used X.25, SNA/SDLC, BSC and ASCII interfaces to connect host computers (servers)at thousands of large companies, educational institutions, and government agencies. Users typically connected via dial-up connections or dedicated async connections. The business consisted of a large public network that supported dial-up users and a private network business that allowed government agencies and large companies (mostly banks and airlines) to build their own dedicated networks. The private networks were often connected via gateways to the public network to reach locations not on the private network. Tymnet was also connected to dozens of other public networks in the U.S. and internationally via X.25/X.75 gateways. (Interesting note: Tymnet was not named after Mr. Tyme. Another employee suggested the name.)  
Xerox Network Systems (XNS) was a protocol suite promulgated by Xerox, which provided routing and packet delivery, as well as higher level functions such as a reliable stream, and remote procedure calls. It was developed from PARC Universal Packet (PUP).
There were two kinds of X.25 networks. Some such as DATAPAC and TRANSPAC were initially implemented with an X.25 external interface. Some older networks such as TELENET and TYMNET were modified to provide a X.25 host interface in addition to older host connection schemes. DATAPAC was developed by Bell Northern Research which was a joint venture of Bell Canada (a common carrier) and Northern Telecom (a telecommunications equipment supplier). Northern Telecom sold several DATAPAC clones to foreign PTTs including the Deutsche Bundespost. X.75 and X.121 allowed the interconnection of national X.25 networks. A user or host could call a host on a foreign network by including the DNIC of the remote network as part of the destination address.
AUSTPAC was an Australian public X.25 network operated by Telstra. Started by Telecom Australia in the early 1980s, AUSTPAC was Australia's first public packet-switched data network, supporting applications such as on-line betting, financial applications — the Australian Tax Office made use of AUSTPAC — and remote terminal access to academic institutions, who maintained their connections to AUSTPAC up until the mid-late 1990s in some cases. Access can be via a dial-up terminal to a PAD, or, by linking a permanent X.25 node to the network.
Datanet 1 was the public switched data network operated by the Dutch PTT Telecom (now known as KPN). Strictly speaking Datanet 1 only referred to the network and the connected users via leased lines (using the X.121 DNIC 2041), the name also referred to the public PAD service Telepad (using the DNIC 2049). And because the main Videotex service used the network and modified PAD devices as infrastructure the name Datanet 1 was used for these services as well. Although this use of the name was incorrect all these services were managed by the same people within one department of KPN contributed to the confusion.
Deutsche Bundespost operated this national network in Germany. The technology was acquired from Northern Telecom.
Hitachi designed a private network system for sale as a turnkey package to multi-national organizations. In addition to providing X.25 packet switching, message switching software was also included. Messages were buffered at the nodes adjacent to the sending and receiving terminals. Switched virtual calls were not supported, but through the use of "logical ports" an originating terminal could have a menu of pre-defined destination terminals. 
JANET was the UK academic and research network, linking all universities, higher education establishments, publicly funded research laboratories. The X.25 network was based mainly on GEC 4000 series switches, and run X.25 links at up to 8 Mbit/s in its final phase before being converted to an IP based network. The JANET network grew out of the 1970s SRCnet (later called SERCnet) network.
PSS was the UK Post Office (later to become British Telecom) national X.25 network with a DNIC of 2342. British Telecom renamed PSS under its GNS (Global Network Service) name, but the PSS name has remained better known. PSS also included public dial-up PAD access, and various InterStream gateways to other services such as Telex.
Transpac was the national X.25 network in France. It was developed locally at about the same time as DataPac in Canada. The development was done by the French PTT and influenced by the experimental RCP network. It began operation in 1978.
VENUS-P was an international X.25 network that operated from April 1982 through March 2006. At its subscription peak in 1999, VENUS-P connected 207 networks in 87 countries.
Venepaq is the national X.25 public network in Venezuela. It is run by Cantv and allow direct connection and dial up connections. Provides nationalwide access at very low cost. It provides national and international access. Venepaq allow connection from 19.2 kbit/s to 64 kbit/s in direct connections, and 1200, 2400 and 9600 bit/s in dial up connections. For more information, call (toll free) 0-800-EMPRESA (3677372) inside Venezuela from any land phone.
A visualization of routing paths through a portion of the Internet.
When Internet connectivity was made available to anyone who could pay for an ISP subscription, the distinctions between national networks blurred. The user no longer saw network identifiers such as the DNIC. Some older technologies such as circuit switching have resurfaced with new names such as fast packet switching. Researchers have created some experimental networks to complement the existing Internet.
The Computer Science Network (CSNET) was a computer network funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF) that began operation in 1981. Its purpose was to extend networking benefits, for computer science departments at academic and research institutions that could not be directly connected to ARPANET, due to funding or authorization limitations. It played a significant role in spreading awareness of, and access to, national networking and was a major milestone on the path to development of the global Internet.
Internet2 is a not-for-profit United States computer networking consortium led by members from the research and education communities, industry, and government. The Internet2 community, in partnership with Qwest, built the first Internet2 Network, called Abilene, in 1998 and was a prime investor in the National LambdaRail (NLR) project. In 2006, Internet2 announced a partnership with Level 3 Communications to launch a brand new nationwide network, boosting its capacity from 10 Gbit/s to 100 Gbit/s. In October, 2007, Internet2 officially retired Abilene and now refers to its new, higher capacity network as the Internet2 Network.
The National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET) was a program of coordinated, evolving projects sponsored by the National Science Foundation (NSF) beginning in 1985 to promote advanced research and education networking in the United States. NSFNET was also the name given to several nationwide backbone networks operating at speeds of 56 kbit/s, 1.5 Mbit/s (T1), and 45 Mbit/s (T3) that were constructed to support NSF's networking initiatives from 1985-1995. Initially created to link researchers to the nation's NSF-funded supercomputing centers, through further public funding and private industry partnerships it developed into a major part of the Internet backbone.
In addition to the five NSF supercomputer centers, NSFNET provided connectivity to eleven regional networks and through these networks to many smaller regional and campus networks in the United States. The NSFNET regional networks were:
Launched in September 2003, National LambdaRail is a 12,000 mile high-speed national computer network owned and operated by the U.S. research and education community that runs over fiber-optic lines. It was the first transcontinental 10-gigabit Ethernet network. It operates with high aggregate capacity of up to 1.6 Tbit/s and a high 40 Gbit/s bitrate, with plans for 100 Gbit/s.
TransPAC2 and TransPAC3, continuations of the TransPAC project, a high-speed international Internet service connecting research and education networks in the Asia-Pacific region to those in the US. TransPAC is part of the NSF’s International Research Network Connections (IRNC) program.
The very high-speed Backbone Network Service (vBNS) came on line in April 1995 as part of a National Science Foundation (NSF) sponsored project to provide high-speed interconnection between NSF-sponsored supercomputing centers and select access points in the United States. The network was engineered and operated by MCI Telecommunications under a cooperative agreement with the NSF. By 1998, the vBNS had grown to connect more than 100 universities and research and engineering institutions via 12 national points of presence with DS-3 (45 Mbit/s), OC-3c (155 Mbit/s), and OC-12c (622 Mbit/s) links on an all OC-12c backbone, a substantial engineering feat for that time. The vBNS installed one of the first ever production OC-48c (2.5 Gbit/s) IP links in February 1999 and went on to upgrade the entire backbone to OC-48c.
In June 1999 MCI WorldCom introduced vBNS+ which allowed attachments to the vBNS network by organizations that were not approved by or receiving support from NSF. After the expiration of the NSF agreement, the vBNS largely transitioned to providing service to the government. Most universities and research centers migrated to the Internet2 educational backbone. In January 2006, when MCI and Verizon merged, vBNS+ became a service of Verizon Business.