Simple Questions: What Is Telnet & What Can It Still Be Used For?

While surfing the Internet you may have stumbled on the term Telnet. Some people might have made fun of it, others may have had fun with it while others may still use it because they are nostalgic and the love the good-old-days. For those of you who don't know what Telnet is and its "relevance" in the modern Internet, read this article. We share a bit of Telnet history, the security implication of using it and some modern-day uses for this old-timer of the Internet.

What Is Telnet?

Telnet is a simple, text-based network protocol that is used for accessing remote computers over TCP/IP networks like the Internet. Telnet was created and launched in 1969 and, historically speaking, you can say that it was the first Internet.

In the old days, you had to physically walk to a server in order to access its data. This meant, among other things, that you had to spend some time arriving at the server's location and then you had to wait for your turn to work with the server. Even if the server had the hardware power to do multiple things at the same time, you were blocked from using it at its full and you had to wait for others to finish their work first. In many circumstances you couldn't even touch the actual server. You had to hand your card stack to an attendant and come back later for your printout.

Telnet brought extraordinary change. Using it meant you could simultaneously connect multiple users to a single server. In order to connect to the server, people only needed access to a terminal, which could be the simplest and cheapest computer available. This computer didn't need to have powerful hardware, it only needed a network connection and a text based interface. Basically, their Telnet Client was like a Command Prompt that people could use in order to work with their servers. This brought a huge boost in productivity.

What are the Telnet Client & the Telnet Server from Windows?

In Windows, you can add two Telnet related features:

  • Telnet Server - if you install this feature, you will be able to configure your Windows computer to run as a Telnet server. This means that your computer will listen for incoming connections and allow others to use it. If you're not beneath a firewall and you have a public IP address, anyone in the world will be able to remote control your computer using a Telnet Client.
  • Telnet Client - this will enable you to connect through Telnet to any server of this type, using just a Command Prompt window. You will learn more about the Telnet Client in this article: How to Install & Use the Telnet Client in Windows 7 & Windows 8.1.

You can learn more about all the Windows Features that can be added or removed, from this guide: How to Add or Remove (Un)Wanted Windows Features, Programs or Apps.

What Are The Security Implications Of Using Telnet?

Even if Telnet was great when it was invented and it revolutionized the use of technology, it does have some flaws. The worst of them is that it is not secure! Telnet sends and receives data only in plaintext, without any kind of encryption. This means that whenever you connect to a Telnet server, your personal data like your username and password will be transmitted as clear text. Anyone who knows how to use an application for sniffing network connections, will see all the data being transmitted.

Basically, anyone trying to use Telnet for serious things like transferring valuable information or administering business servers, is just plain crazy.

When this protocol was invented, we did not have high-bandwidth Internet, lots of hackers, malware creators and so on. It was first used by institutions with closed networks which were giving controlled access via Telnet to their servers. At that time, encryption was not on the list of anyone's needs.

But today, Telnet is the most insecure protocol that you can use for transferring data.

Why Would You Use Telnet in 2014?

Now that you know a bit of history about Telnet and you know that it is a very insecure protocol, let's share some real-life uses that are still valid for Telnet in 2014:

  • Accessing old-school servers that insist on using this protocol for remote connections. We're sure that there are some old-school UNIX servers left in the wild. Someone might be using Telnet to work with them. Sounds crazy, doesn't it?
  • Some network devices like old-school Cisco routers, allow Telnet connections to them. With the help of a Telnet Client you can configure the way they work.
  • The main reason why people still use Telnet today is fun. You can watch movies in full-text, play games, check the weather forecast and more. We've actually discovered five fun uses for Telnet and you can find them in this article: 5 Fun & Geeky Things You Can Do With the Telnet Client.

  • Some people still use Telnet for administering and joining text-based bulletin board systems. Forums are all about text. You don't really need pictures and pretty graphics. That's why there are still quite a few active communities on the Internet. You will find a list at The BBS Corner.

Conclusion

We hope that you have enjoyed reading about Telnet - this protocol that's like living dinosaur in a world that has changed a lot since its birth. We did enjoy learning more about it, playing with it and writing about it.
If you know other uses for Telnet, in today's Internet, don't hesitate to share them with us. We're curious to learn why some people still use it in 2014.