RPCNET was the first computer network entirely designed and built in Italy and among the first in Europe, which was able to compete for efficiency with ARPANET and other existing networks at the time. If the research on ARPANET was motivated
by military reasons, RPCNET was produced instead for another reason, internal
to the scientific world of the time, to rationalize the national scientific
In those years, scientific computing was provided autonomously by numerous computer centers distributed throughout the country, equipped with state-of-the-art computers. For scientific disciplines, such as mathematics, physics, chemistry and engineering, electronic calculus was fundamental, but also many humanistic subjects, such as linguistics, jurisprudence, musicology, benefited in these years from this innovation for their own research. In 1970 the CNUCE of Pisa launched the REEL project (REte of ELaboratori) with the aim of designing and building a computer network to interconnect the Italian scientific computing centers. In 1974 the CNUCE passed from the University of Pisa to that of the CNR and this change further favored the development of the project. On the part of the CNR, in fact, there was a lot of interest in being able to provide its national centers and universities with this important service.
The first RPCNET network prototype (REEL Project Computer NETwork) was ready in 1976. Until 1985, that is almost up until the advent of the Internet in Italy, RPCNET interconnected a dozen large Italian scientific computing centers and enabled the CNR to implement a cutting-edge policy for the provision of scientific computing. In fact, with RPCNET the user connected to a computer center could transfer files from one computer to another, access the operating systems (Internet telnet) of the other computer centers and exchange messages with other users (Internet email). Through a set of macros (RNAM – REEL Network Access Method) users also had the opportunity to design and implement their own distributed applications.
Before RPCNET the various computing centers operated in complete autonomy, each with its own catchment area, acquired their own software products (often uneconomically duplicated among the various centers) and they managed their commercial relationships with the manufacturers (IBM, Digital, UNIVAC, etc.) separately. With RPCNET the computing resources provided by the various centers were shared by all users. This means, for example, that there was no longer the need to buy the same application software for all the computing centers. It was enough for only one node of the network to be in possession of the software because all RPCNET users could access it and use it for their own needs. In this sense, RPCNET also had a significant impact on the commercial relations between the CNR and computer manufacturers.
RPCNET undoubtedly contributed to creating a culture of networking between users and managers of scientific computing in the CNR and university and to preparing the ground that would have facilitated the transition to the Internet a few years later.
IBM Scientific Center of Pisa
Giuseppe A. Gori
University of Palermo
University of Turin
Allen Springer, Centro Scientifico IBM di Cambridge, Massachusetts – USA