The No Fuss, No Muss Network

NETWORK EQUIPMENT DESIGNER: DEC BUSINESS & INDUSTRIAL

The advent of network computing is ensnarling offices in a web of cables, PCs, and server boxes patched together with the finesse of Rube Goldberg contraptions. Now, though, from a company renowned for its love of big, advanced, and sometimes expensive technology--Digital Equipment Corp.--comes a small, inexpensive, flexible set of low-end network products that bring order to this chaos. These new products are so powerful in design that they could define their market for years to come.

Few IDEA gold winners generated as much discussion and appreciation as the DEChub, DECserver 90L, and DECbridge 90 network system. By creating a unique aesthetic image and a simple-to-use series of products, DEC in-house designers Stuart Morgan and Meg Hetfield went a long way toward removing the fear and complexity often associated with computer networking. They rescued the workplace from clutter and boredom, offering up convivial office appliances instead.

SUBTLE CLUES. They also created a whole line of products for DEC. "The market was moving away from high-end, big-computer power toward low-end, low-cost networking," says Morgan. "We saw that we didn't have a product in that market, configured one, and presented it up the line to the executive committee. They bought it."

The network they built can be used by a variety of companies, from small businesses with five personal computers to large corporations with system managers in charge of dozens of PCs and printers.

What DEC executives bought was a modular networking system that snaps together in minutes. It is built around the DEChub, which can be mounted on a wall, office partition, or in a standard rack closet. It is a 10-slot board into which modules are easily snapped. Morgan and Hetfield patented the light yellow handles that permit one-handed connection without tools or cables. The designers used colors, shapes, and textures to the maximum to guide people through what normally is a complex series of tasks.

The server module that plugs into the hub is simplicity itself. "We wanted to strip away all the stuff that isn't really necessary," says Hetfield. The slim, small, eight-port terminal server can stand alone and link a few PCs or be stacked and plugged into the hub to accommodate lots of computers.

By sensing a new business need for DEC and by defining the product, Morgan and Hetfield were able to avoid the aesthetic, as well as functional, compromises that tend to take place in large corporations. As a result, this series of DEC products has so strong and distinctive an appearance that it has changed the entire low-end networking market. One final touch: An elegantly curved cover of finely perforated sheet metal protects the modules while allowing people to see inside the server, demystifying it.