Photo: Penny and me posing for a magazine in the Server Room (2005)
“Behold the Beast I have created” came to mind as I watched my creation through the bars. Its noisy fans broke the eerie silence, light from its flashing LED’s bounced off the rocky walls. In my mind I knew it would stay docile providing I kept feeding it power and network packets. Failure of either would cause an uproar. Even worse an air conditioning failure would cause overheating then I would be in serious trouble. To the best of my ability I kept it happy. Sometimes its internal software caused it aches and pains, every one of which I felt like the lash of a whip. I tightened my grip on the bars and silently hoped for an uninterrupted weekend. It was then that I realised I was the one inside the cage.
OK, possibly a little over dramatic with “rocky walls” etc but I am sure you understand the idea. My Internet system had to work 24/24, 7/7 – failure was not an option. The health of the system became the focal point for me and my family. It dictated all our travel plans. I had to always be available just in case. We made a rule that we would never go further than 2 hours from Monaco – ever. This had to be by car as planes, trains and ferries work to schedules. It could have been worse. As we are based in Monaco we have the French Riviera and several local Ski Resorts within 2 hours’ drive.
Using phone redirection my clients could contact me 24/24, 7/7 even when I was out of the office. Whenever possible I was near a screen that continuously showed the state of the system. It was the first thing I checked each morning and the last thing I checked each night.
Over the years there were all sorts of technical hiccups that I had to fix hopefully before any clients noticed. I remember one hiccup when taking the family to Auron for a ski weekend. After a 1h45m Friday night drive we arrived at the hotel, I plugged into the phone line to check the system only to find a problem. I jumped back in the car and drove to Monaco, fixed the problem and was back at the hotel for breakfast and our family skiing. The kids probably didn’t even notice.
Another time I was a few km’s into the Lachens Mer bicycle trail race on a Sunday when I had a call from one of our server clients in New Zealand. I spent the next hour on the phone in a forest halfway up a mountain calming the client down and fixing the problem.
As the years passed I built in more redundancy so the system would survive failures. For instance all the servers had two power supplies from two different battery backup systems on two different fuses. I had two air conditioners. Eventually I had two Internet connections from two different suppliers. Famously this went belly up during construction of the Nice tramway (30km from Monaco) when a digger accidentally cut a load of cables which took out both my “independent” lines. Another time a major power failure in France cut power for a whole morning to the entire coast. Ultimately I could only control so much.
This life style was certainly not something I or my family had considered when I started the Internet project in 1994. After a while it became normal. It was just how I/we lived. It ended in 2014 when I sold the business. Never in my wildest dreams did I ever think I would be willingly trapped in that cage for 20 years.
Anyhow enough of this. Back to the story of 1996.
Having spent the previous 16 months or so building my Internet Services, 1996 signaled the start of a more settled and less dramatic period. Still plenty of new things to explore though as the Internet blossomed into new areas.
Onward and Upward
During 1996 both the Access and Publishing sides of the Internet Business continued to grow as did my servers and phone lines. In theory the biggest change would have been the introduction of the , Internet Ready, Windows 95 but I remember at the time few of our clients wanted it as Windows 3.1 was very stable and 95 came with all sorts of horror stories.
Internet and email was becoming more of a requirement for our corporate clients, so we began large scale connections where we would link entire networks to our Internet through the appropriate firewalls. At first we were selling them emails on @monaco.mc but eventually I started building virtual email domains so they could have their own custom email addresses.
Both Internet and GALE FORCE Computing were appearing more and more in the local press. Here is an article from the April 1996 edition of Monaco Actualite:20200914_154654
As my number of incoming lines continued to increase my dial-in user system was becoming a headache to maintain as each PC needed a full copy of all the users and their passwords. After much research I discovered an American company called Livingston that made special devices for this application called Portmasters.
The Portmaster was a dedicated Dial-In Access Device with multiple modem ports and a network port. It was controlled remotely from a PC. My first Portmaster had 20 ports which could connect directly to 20 modems. For authentication the Portmaster called a PC running the Radius user control server software. The joy was that a single Radius server, built on a Linux PC, could handle an unlimited number of Portmasters and therefore modems. It also meant I only had to have two Radius PC’s, Master and Backup, to keep up to date with the rapidly increasing number of users signing up.
During 1996 I expanded into the world of ISDN (Integrated Service Digital Network) phone lines which simply connected to appropriately configured Livingston Portmaster. Two lines allowed 4 clients to dial in at the same time, as each ISDN line has 2 channels. These channels were pure digital and could transfer 64kb (0.064 Mega bits per second). This was very useful for company networks to access their mail on our servers, but as my Internet link was still only 128kb it didn’t help with web browsing.
The ISDN network connection technology became super useful as we moved into the world of International conferences. The Monaco area hosts many international conferences and Internet was quickly becoming a requirement for them. Even though Internet access competitors were beginning to appear I was still the best game in town so most of the conferences came to me. To service these I built a set of rugged PC’s and networking equipment that I could easily transport and setup as a cyber cafe. We worked at all sorts of ventures on the coast in Cannes, Antibes, Nice and Monaco. All the conference needed was an ISDN line and we were all set to go.
Vernissage was one of my new words this year. In fact you could say Art was also a new discovery. As you can imagine artists and the Internet made an interesting combination. Fred Forest was one of the first real artists I encountered when I was approached by Pierre of the Galerie Pierre Nouvion, Monaco to assist in the online inauguration of his “Territory of the Square Meter” and “Universal Foot” projects. I met some amazing people and went on to sell them computers and services for the next few years.
Monaco is very big in the world of yachting so it was no surprise when we received a call from the Yacht Club de Monaco for help with a trophy presentation. I think it was part of the Monaco Classic Week that is held every year. This year the big awards dinner was to be held in the Grand Hall of the Institut Oceanographique museum near the Palace. One of the awards was to be presented to an owner who was currently on his Yacht near Boston, USA. My part was to setup a video conference call with the owner during the awards ceremony, play it through the halls sound system and project the image onto a massive screen. The Prince was to present the trophy via the captain on board the Yacht in Boston. No pressure. Amazingly it all worked perfectly.
During many of these conferences I was able to demo the Internet and Email to the management of the hosting conference center or hotel which resulted in a handful of new websites and many new accesses/emails.
As you can imagine Monaco is home to lots of really interesting people. In the past I had not really come across many, but with the Internet and Email they sought me out. Quite a few really rich people I had never heard of came to my door and honestly some did turn up in Ferrari’s or Rolls Royce’s, some just sent their butler to sign up! I had some serious Hollywood Film Stars sign up including a James Bond. There were also all sorts of models, ex royalty and musicians. Most interesting for me were the sports stars. Formula 1, Cycling, Tennis, Golf and Motor Bike racing were all well represented in my client list. I made websites for some, many went on to become clients for our normal IT services also. I could have made a wonderful collection of famous selfies if that had been a thing in those days.
One of my most fun sites was for the tennis star Goran Ivanisevic. This used a very tricky Java based menu system that looked like bouncing tennis balls. You can see bits of the site on here on Archive.org but unfortunately the menu no longer works.
We attended all sorts of interesting conferences. One of the most fascinating was the 1996 Monopoly World Championships held in Monaco and won by Christopher Woo from Hong Kong. For this conference we were publishing the results and reports as well as providing Internet for the attendees. Once again we were mentioned in our local newspaper, the Nice Matin.
A big change in Monaco in 1996 was the introduction of our own +377 telephone country code. Previously our numbers had been under the +33 code for France. This caused us some grief as our French clients had to change their dial-in number to what was now an international call, although it was still billed as a local call. This pricing rule was lost on many of our clients and they became very worried about call charges.
During 1996 I ordered more phone lines only to be told there were no more available. It seems OMT had a limited number of phone lines going into the 4 floor residential building we were in and no more were available. A week later the diggers arrived and they literally dug up the road to install more cables between our building and the telephone junction box up the road. I love Monaco.
January 4th 1997 seems to be the oldest version of www.monaco.mc that I could find on the Internet archive site archive.org. It seems most of the content is there but some of the images are missing for some reason.
In 1997 some new toys came along in the form of 56kb modems. These were a bit of a trick as they were only 56kb in one direction and would only work if they dialed from an analogue to an ISDN number equipped with a special modem. This was my introduction to the wonderful world of the ISDN PRI.
As I mentioned earlier an ISDN line has two channels, originally developed for voice and fax (remember fax !). A PRI looks the same as an ISDN line but has up to 32 channels each one capable of 64kb transfer rate. For us in the Internet Access world this was a game changer especially as Livingston were now selling the Portmaster 3 with a PRI port.
I know what you are thinking. What is the point in having 32 ISDN channels if all my clients are using analogue lines and modems. Enter the virtual modem. Special cards could be installed in the Portmaster 3 that would simulate analogue modems on the ISDN channels. Even more exciting news was that they were compatible with the new 56kb modems.
The perceived international dialing costs were becoming more of a problem so it was time to act. I rented some space under the stairs from Eric, one of our French IT clients based in Valbonne. Into this space I put a UPS battery power system, a Portmaster 3 and a router. From France Telecom I rented a 64kb line to my Monaco Office and an IDSN PRI line. Clients could now dial into my French number which, via the Portmaster, Router and 64kb line, would link them directly to my Monaco Data Center (shelf in my shop). Magic, no more worries about international phone calls and even more French people signed up.
Below is a photo of my rig next to a plant and under the stairs. The UPS battery backup power system is on the left. On the right is all the networking gear mounted on a wheeled base usually found under washing machines. The bottom box is the Portmaster 3, above is the blue France Telecom 64kb leased line modem and on top is the router which linked the modem to the network on the PM3.
Shortly after this I was able to upgrade our Internet line to 256kb for 12,000 French Francs (1,800 Euro) installation fee and 25,000 French Francs (3,800 Euro) per month.
Amazingly a totally independent Internet Users Group had started up among my clients – I was invited in as a star speaker. We had regular meetings in various pubs up and down the coast to discuss all things Internet. It was run by a small group of teachers and retired academics. Discussions ranged from colour sets on webs to the impact on society once it becomes main stream. Imagine that – people actually discussing the Internet and its ramification way before Google and social media.
During one of these meetings I met some people from a research company in the science park of Sophia Antipolis. Their interest was voice over IP so we setup a sort of public demo between their office and mine. Days later there was an article in our local Nice Matin newspaper about our demo and the possible future of voice communications. That’s nice I thought. All good publicity as my company was mentioned as a local leader in the field. Not so good actually, as a few days later I received a serious registered letter from OMT, the Monaco phone company. It seemed that OMT had an exclusive contract in Monaco for the transmission of voice so anyone else offering the service was to be stamped on by lawyers. I sent a registered apology saying it was just a technical demo and I was not going to do it again. Wrists slapped!
To Die at 8 !
Does anyone remember Quake? Nope. Well Quake was, at the time, a next generation First Person Shooter PC Game like Doom from ID Software. For me the standout feature of Quake was that it included a multi user option that worked over IP networks via a server version. I immediately built a server and told my clients. Quite quickly we had 10 or so people interested. One of the most enthusiastic was an Australian Yacht Captain on a 50m boat moored in Antibes. This resulted in “To Die @ 8” which if spoken with an Australian accent comes out as “Today at 8” which sounds like a news program – hey we took entertainment where we could find it in those days!. So TD@8 became a thing and every few days at 8pm we all jumped into my Quake server and ran around shooting monsters and each other.
I remembered TD@8 because around this time we were invited to setup my roaming cyber cafe at some sort of high level conference aimed at the young generation in our area. I think it was all sorts of companies either providing services to young people or advertising apprenticeships etc. Anyhow one part of the conference center was dedicated to local IT companies so that was us and 5 others each with a large table to show our wares. With our Internet access and computer games stock we were right in there with the kids.
Early on in the show the Royal Family came by for a tour. They stopped at each stand and had a good look at what was on offer. I had met Prince Albert briefly earlier in the year and I was super chuffed when he recognised me and introduced me, with my correct name, to his father Prince Rainier. I tried to explain the Internet and how I thought it could be good for Monaco, but once again I think I was too far ahead of the curve. They listened politely, photos were taken and they moved on.
During our time at the show I chatted with the other IT companies and eventually we linked all our networks together then hooked into my Quake server and had several massive TD@8 games in the evenings after the attendees had left.
Part of the eco-system of Doom and Quake was the ability to build your own worlds (called WAD files) which defined the game environment. The first one I made was based on my office, with a few more levels and secret doors (and certainly more monsters and traps). The second one was based on Monaco’s Casino Square. I made maps of both the Casino and the Hotel de Paris along with secret tunnels. Unfortunately I ran out of steam so it was never completed.
Work was turning out to be more fun that you could ever believe.
1997 was also the 700 year anniversary of the Grimaldi family’s rule in Monaco. Once again I was a little nervous about making much of this on my website until the Centre de Presse descended on me with all their Press Releases and a request from on high. This resulted in me making a Monaco 700 Year website detailing the history of Monaco on my www.monaco.mc.
1998 was a blur of conferences, websites and upgrades which took the main line to 512kb.
I took on a large scale hosting contract for an international financial services company part of which required the building of a proper Computer Room with security and air conditioning. Once this was built I moved most of my Internet system the shop and downstairs into the official server room. Now I had rack space to spare I began a new fork of the business hosting and maintaining client servers.
The following photo (from 2013) gives you an idea of how my Data Center was setup. Below is the “Clones Rig” with loads of no name Clone PC’s as we used to call them. The 4 thin horizontal boxes with fans on the left are Portmaster 3 Dial-In units. At the bottom of the picture you can just see 2 of my UPS battery backup power units.
The next photo (also from 2013) shows my 19 inch rack section. The rack on the left is all equipment for one of my international clients. I wrote all the software and built the databases for a system to manage all their operations. They had over 100 employees in 9 offices in 5 countries all accessing the systems here by encrypted VPN links. The centre rack contains all the routers and modems for the network. The right hand rack contains more servers owned or rented to different companies. Note the air piping system on top of the racks which was used to pump the hot air into my office as heating in the winter.
By now I was actively developing applications on my web servers using both PHP on Linux and ASP on Windows NT. Line speeds were not ready for properly distributed systems (now called cloud computing) but it was easy to see where the world was going.
I was quite fascinated with mapping and the possibilities that the web provided. I made various versions of an active Monaco map that allowed one to click on tiny icons on the map image to open a photo of the building at that location. I wrote the software for a fully interactive tour of Monaco. The first photo showed the entrance to Monaco and by clicking on navigation icons on the photo you could choose which road to go down. Photos of the road would then lead you to the next junction and more navigation icons. The software was easy. Taking photos of all the roads and junctions was time consuming and unfortunately was never finished. A short version around Casino Square was online for a while, but I can no longer find it.
For a while I discussed with a local delivery company the possibility of making a home shopping business. The intent was for me to build an online catalogue of products from our local supermarket. Our clients would then order online, we would buy from the supermarket and the delivery company would deliver. I thought people would pay for this service, unfortunately no one else thought they would. Eventually I agreed as I was too busy anyway on projects that actually did make money.
I made websites for many fascinating local organisations. The Princess Grace Irish Library of Monaco turned out to be one of the most amazing. Not only did it have an impressive collection of Irish literature it was also a centre for lectures and Seminars. The people were really nice and the contents classic. A copy of my 1999 version of the PGLIB website can be seen here on Archive.org.
1999 saw a major rework of the www.monaco.mc website as can be seen on the above link to archive.org.
An entrepreneur called Tony walked into our shop one day looking for the person who owned, probably the only, Silicon Graphics server in Monaco. We started chatting then meeting up out of the office to brainstorm new projects. This was the time Ebay had just gone public and Google was just starting to be heard of. The result was that over the next year or so I developed a whole stack of web based projects. I built from scratch an auction site, a search engine, a storage site (like Dropbox), a photo sharing site, I wrote an online accounting system, word processor and a limited spreadsheet to name just a few. In those days ideas were easy, hosting was free and for me developing was fun. Unfortunately, even with can-do Tony, none of these projects ever reached enough of a user mass to really take off.
By 1999 my Internet connection was mission critical to many local companies and individuals. In order to reduce any risks of failure for my clients I added a second Internet line from a company called UUNet. This saw my entry into the wonderful world of the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP4) which became one more thing to pay for. As I was no longer directly under just one supplier my network had to be redefined with its own Autonomous System Number (ASN). The BGP4 then acted as a traffic controller so data to my ASN could be routed through either Transpac or UUNet depending which was least busy.
The stand out conference of 1999 was called “Etre” and I was the Internet supplier. This was a world level event and included people such as Bill Gates and Larry Ellison in the line up of speakers. I actually passed Bill in the corridor but was too star struck to try to sell him anything.
Part of the conference was a Dragons Den venture capital forum during which I saw the likes of lastminute.com and moonpig.com presenting their cases to the panel of investors. A few months later the dot-com bubble burst.
The new millennium
In 2000 I upgraded our incoming lines to 2MB each at vast expense.
Even though we now had local competitors our client count was still going up exponentially. My peak for incoming lines was 194 split between Monaco and France, 56k Analogue and ISDN.
As well as developing websites and email systems for local businesses I was also donating some of my time and resources to putting local charities and social support organisations online. Researching on archive.org today (2020) I have found a couple of saved examples. One of these seems to be a mostly complete image of the 2001 website for our local church, the St Paul’s Anglican Church which I setup as a sub domain at www.stpauls.monaco.mc. A 2004 archive of the British Association of Monaco website which I sub domained on www.bam.monaco.mc is unfortunately not quite as complete with some of the images missing.
In 2001 our local business magazine, Monaco Economie, published a short profile of me.mc-econ-2001-apr
ADSL finally began to appear in our region in 2001 with both France and Monaco phone companies now offering broadband directly from equipment in their phone exchanges. I could not compete with these access speeds so my clients began to drift away. Interestingly most of these clients stayed with me for the @monaco.mc and @rivieramail.com addresses.
In 2002 I worked closely with the University of Monaco to setup a monaco.edu domain. Being a .edu was much more complicated than a standard .com as an amount of certification was involved to prove they were actually a recognised place of learning. Once operational I designed and hosted the domain. Eventually we moved it over to the University’s IT department.
In the last couple of years I had been working a great deal with Internet networking equipment from a large American company called Cisco Systems. When working with these large companies I often ended up signing all sorts of reseller and service type agreements. It seems in the case of Cisco this had put me on some sort of competency list. In 2004 just after the Iraq War I was contacted by Cisco and asked if I could go to Iraq and work on the network rebuilding that was going on there. Once upon a time I would have considered this as I do find working on IT in unusual environments really challenging. This time with everything that was going on both in Iraq and with my business I respectfully declined.
By 2005 the business was steady as a hosting and development operation for emails, web sites and clients’ servers. The access business was down to its last few phone lines as most people now had ADSL from their telephone companies.
I was a little frustrated with Google and other search engines as it seemed easy to find American services but quite difficult to find anything local – so I built my own Search Engine. There are really two parts to a Search Engine.
Firstly there is the Spider. The Spider is a program that crawls or reads a web page, stores some of the text and all of the links. Once the page is completed it goes through the list of links and does the same thing again. As you can imagine this quickly builds up a massive store of links. I had 10 PC’s running and gave them each a section of the .mc domains list that was publicly available. My intention was to index all the mc websites. I indexed over 73,000 pages.
The second part is the “client” which takes input from the user and returns all the web pages it can find that are relevant to the search. Speed is of the essence here so normally indexed databases are not so useful. I wrote my own database in C to optimise the process as much as I could.
The search database is no longer available but you can see the 2005 version of www.monaco.mc, along with the search box on Archive.org. As you can see from the page it was generating more income now with placed advertising.
In 2006 Monaco Telecom approached me about the monaco.mc domain as they were going through another rebranding. From the moment I had that very first meeting with the government in 1995 I knew that monaco.mc was too important for just me to own. I knew one day I would sell it but I wanted to find the right buyer. After 11 eventful years during which I rejected many offers from all sorts of investors I was convinced Monaco Telecom was the right buyer so the deal was done. For me, selling monaco.mc to Monaco Telecom was more like seeing your child leave home than a commercial operation. It had been quite a ride !
It was sad to see monaco.mc leave the building, but life goes on. I upgraded my connection to two 4MB fiber optic lines directly into the new Monaco Telecom Internet switching center which was brilliant both from a raw speed point of view and network routing.
In 2010 I started building a VMware virtual server system so I could streamline my myriad of physical servers. By now server hardware had become so fast that a good server could simulate multiple standard servers. For instance one VMware server could host 20 virtual servers each one running Linux or Windows as a separate entity. This greatly reduced the amount of hardware I was operating and made it much easier to move a complete (virtual) server from one hardware server to another during upgrades or in case of hardware failure.
In 2014 I sold most of the business and happily drifted off into the world of long distance triathlons – but that’s another story !