A history of the NET command

I’ve always observed the maxim that understanding history lends strength to understanding the present and future. Having been involved during the early days of PC Network Operating Systems, the NET command stands out as one of those invaluable unsung heroes of a tool that has saved the day on more than one occasion as well as being used daily by many people for over 25 years.

If you can, cast your mind back to the mid-eighties, oof… right, shudder over, PCs had started to seep into society, 8086 based PCs and successors began to replace the typewriter and small organisations were suddenly able to reap the benefits of digital filing, sharing of data and centralising printed paper output by using networked printers.

I stepped into this arena in about 1987 and promptly found myself connecting PCs to centralised resources, working from the point of running cables up and down buildings to configuring servers or soldering chips onto motherboards. So with this background and set of challenges, I quickly learned the core commands and principles that have served me well ever since.

As with a great deal of ‘their’ software, you may be surprised to learn that the NET command was not originally a Microsoft command. I say ‘NET’ as we are actually talking about what was originally NET.COM that shipped with 3Com 3+ Open/Share and not NET.EXE which is what it effectively became (To be fair, Microsoft and 3Com did work together on the development of LAN Manager so although perhaps not the originators of the command, they were pretty much there at the start). Most techies were and still are used to typing the command without suffix and I imagine there aren’t that many out there who recall the earlier iteration.

Simply put, without the NET command it wouldn’t have been possible for people to access network resources in a 3+ environment. Both adding of network shares so PCs could access files or redirecting an LPT or COM port for printing would be achieved by the use of the ‘NET USE’ command. No clicking on Start, Run and using the UNC path, no ‘Network’ icon or ‘Map Network Drive’… then again, no GUI just a TUI that was progressive if not using green text! (BTW Hard disks in workstations were also considered a luxury then and Solid State referred to stereo equipment! (Yeah, ok granddad..)

Furthermore, it wasn’t actually possible to connect a monitor to the 3Com servers at that point as they only had a scrolling LCD display for a screen and a set of switches and dials to set the mode they booted up in. One would have to connect to the server from a networked DOS PC, shut down the server and then change the switch on the front to put it into ‘maintenance’ mode before booting to remotely reconfigure.

As LAN Manager continued to be developed by Microsoft and worked fantastically on OS/2 then transferred to the eponymous Windows Server (now minus the NT of course), the NET command continued to provide the core connectivity services and server configuration tasks it always had. The advent of the GUI based Server Manager and Windows Explorer for techs and users respectively meant that the NET command stepped back from the limelight, yet it was always really there doing the same job it always had.

Even more so though because if today you run the command bare (i.e. just type net from a shell window then enter) you will see that there are 19 sub commands that can each execute a number of differing switches to manipulate your Windows networking environment. Now the cries of Wintel techies all over resound like errant Unix DBAs returning to the fold, “use command line, abandon your GUIs!”. Well, pulling my ‘old boy’ card out again, I recall the self-same type of Wintel techs proudly denouncing command-line jockeys when Windows NT came along and ‘everything’ could now be done in a GUI. So excuse me if I smirk when replying “Oh, rea-ea-eeeehelly?”. How about simply using any tools that are available to you to achieve the best results you can?

Now, in the super modern, all-new, never as good as this, anything old is useless, world of IT, that in no way revolves on an axis as fast as the earth, one would be forgiven for wondering if running the NET command on a server, remotely, from a command-line shell in DOS against a 3S400 server running 3+ Share is in any way similar to running commands on a server, remotely, from a command-line shell in Windows against a Virtual server running Windows 2012.

D’you know what? It is! 😉

This is because the NET command isn’t just some command used to connect resources for client PCs, it was, and still is, the command one can use to start and stop server services, set up shares, users, printers, view configurations and pretty much manage the NOS. The command NET STOP RDR /Y (Avoiding confirmation with /Y for the brave!) was the LAN Manager equivalent of the Shutdown command today barring powering off the server. Stopping the Redirector (RDR) stopped server and workstation services and effectively cut the computer off from all but physical access. In a recent piece of forensic work I undertook, the use of one of the original switches, NET VIEW, quickly helped me narrow down my search and highlighted what I was looking for to continue investigations.

With such power comes great responsibility. The memory of a contractor, who thought doing a NET SEND to several hundred customer staff on one April 1st with a rather alarming message suggesting people power down to avoid an explosion, still raises a chuckle when I recall it and wonder how his ensuing job search went from that afternoon.

I have been asked on occasion how it is that I am able to keep up with technology whilst never undertaking any formal training. There are a number of reasons, many of which revolve around the variety of environments I have worked in combined with vague natural talents(or should that be natural talent for vagueness?). Allied to this however is the fact that many principles and standards if not even commands such as good old NET have remained the same as they form the foundations of management techniques and tool-sets which have built and supported countless systems. For me and other similar aging techs, it is a case of broadening a command set and patiently repeating the mantras to each new generation of tinkerers.

From DOS to OS/2, LAN Manager and Windows Server, the NET command has kept us connected for over 25 years in an industry where apparently a year is a lifetime.

Thanks NET!

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