Last year, when biomedical researcher Henry Hsiao wanted to share data or test results with another scientist or engineer in his lab, he used to store the information on multiple floppy disks, then hand-deliver the disks to colleagues at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. Similarly, when Hsiao, an associate professor of biomedical engineering, needed to have raw data processed by a large, number-crunching computer, he was required to physically take his data to one of the university's mainframes.

But nowadays Hsiao can accomplish both of these tasks, and many others, with little more than a single keystroke on his personal computer. His PC is now tied into a local area network (LAN), a communications system for electronically transferring data among PCs, printers, plotters, and larger computers.

"Before the LAN, we had a lot of transfers of floppy disks," Hsiao notes. "Now, using the LAN, I can run the...

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