Systems Network Architecture

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What Does Systems Network Architecture Mean?

Systems Network Architecture (SNA) is IBM’s proprietary networking 5-level design architecture developed in 1974 for mainframe computers. SNA consists of a variety of hardware and software interfaces permitting hardware and software system communication. The 5-level design has evolved into a 7-level model closely corresponding to the internationally recognized Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) model, and now supports peer-to-peer networks of workstations.


SNA is not a program but rather a complete protocol stack (suite) used for interconnecting computers and their associated resources.

Techopedia Explains Systems Network Architecture

In the mid 1970s IBM was principally a hardware vendor attempting to increase hardware sales. To do so they induced customers toward interactive terminal-based systems and away from batch systems that executed programs without manual intervention. The strategy was to increase sales of mainframe computers and peripherals, and SNA was intended to reduce the main non-computer costs and other problems operating large networks. These problems included:

  • Communication lines not shared by terminals using different applications with different communication protocols
  • Inefficient and time-consuming data transmissions
  • Poor quality telecommunications lines

Thus, SNAs were intended to increase consumer spending on terminal-based systems, at the expense of telecommunications companies. At that time each CPU could only handle 16 peripherals at once, and each communication line counted as a peripheral. So the number of terminals a powerful mainframe computer could handle was severely limited.

Technology improvements resulted in more powerful communications cards, resulting in “multi-layer communications protocols” being proposed; SNA and ITU-T’s X.25 later became the dominant communication protocols.

Critical elements of SNA included:

  • IBM Network Control Program (NCP): a primitive switching protocol for forwarding data packets similar to a modern switch and reducing the limitations on communications lines per CPU
  • Synchronous Data Link Control (SDLC): a protocol which greatly improved data transmission efficiency over a single link – a precursor to data packet communication which evolved into modern IP technology
  • Virtual Telecommunications Access Method (VTAM): a software package for log-in, session and routing services within a mainframe computer
  • Evolving technologies such as APPN (advanced peer-to-peer networking – an extension to SNA) and APPC (advanced program-to-program communication – a protocol at the application layer in the OSI model) allowed computers to control many terminals; and SNA was adapted to handle modern peer-to-peer communications and distributed computing.

SNA has since been mostly replaced with TCP/IP.


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Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert
Margaret Rouse
Technology Expert

Margaret is an award-winning technical writer and teacher known for her ability to explain complex technical subjects to a non-technical business audience. Over the past twenty years, her IT definitions have been published by Que in an encyclopedia of technology terms and cited in articles by the New York Times, Time Magazine, USA Today, ZDNet, PC Magazine, and Discovery Magazine. She joined Techopedia in 2011. Margaret's idea of a fun day is helping IT and business professionals learn to speak each other’s highly specialized languages.