TechScape: Vint Cerf on how the internet was born
The man himself recollects...
Interview The Register will be publishing three TechScape exclusive interviews with Vint Cerf over the next few weeks. In this first interview, we examine Cerf's story as one of the undisputed originators of the internet.
Currently SVP of Technology Strategy for MCI, based in Virginia, Cerf spent some time talking with me from JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratories) in Pasadena, California. Of course his day job involves helping MCI figure out how to maximize revenue and obtain new customers, partners and develop new channels. But the reason he was at JPL is because of his revolutionary work on setting up the InterPlaNet communications/data system which he's involved JPL, NASA and numerous other organizations in sending IP infrastructure to Mars on the recent landings there. This will be the subject of our second interview with Cerf.
The man has always been pretty unassuming about claiming the credit and very liberal with the credit to others such as Bob Kahn. This leads me to believe that more of the credit is due than is normally attributed to him.
Here's how Cerf tells the story:
"The simple story is that the US Department of Defense (DOD) started to explore the use of computers in what they called ‘command & control' which was really about multiple computers and how to connect them," Cerf began. The obvious intention was to develop an integrated military communications system which would represent a distinct battlefield or even strategic missile delivery advantage for America.
So the DOD's initial problem was how to connect its far-flung assets? "DOD said we needed to put these computers and connect them on tanks, APV's and ships," Cerf pointed out. Remember this was 1970 and the height of the Cold War between the US and Soviet Union; Leonid Ilyich Brezhnev was the First Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party and committed to spreading Communism as far and wide as possible; while America was trying to prevent the "domino effect" spread of this enslaving ideology in Vietnam (a war they lost in the near-term but eventually won with the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991).
The USA wanted to find the technologies which would give them the edge, any edge, against the Soviets and went to the universities and research facilities to find that edge.
Who could've predicted that one of the technologies would be a worldwide communications system which would change the business models, offer new uncharted territories for distribution, sales, procurement, research, health, travel, community, law, education and so on? Who would've known that there would be no immediate military application but a larger more important invention with an incredible utilization around the corner?
Not Cerf certainly.
"We had no idea that this would turn into a global and public infrastructure," he observed categorically. "In the earliest days, this was a project I worked on with great passion because I wanted to solve the Defense Department's problem: it did not want proprietary networking and it didn't want to be confined to a single network technology. As the system expanded into academic space, it was increasingly useful and I hoped it could be made available much more widely."
Good thing too, imagine if the DOD had successfully stifled it or insisted on its being classified; the world would still be writing letters and waiting around for "snail mail." (Although with the technology stress of e-mail in-boxes, spam and viruses perhaps would we all be better off?)
In the mid-1960s, the US government created ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) a "skunk works" R&D operation in part as response to Sputnik.
Cerf knew Bob Kahn from some work at UCLA and together they created the TCIP/IP protocol which became the backbone platform for the Internet. I make it sound easy; it was anything but.
They had heard about Donald Davies (over here across "the pond") at the National Physical Labs and his work on and references to "packet switching." Then armed with Davies' concept, Cerf and Kahn encountered another set of important research from Leonard Kleinrock and Paul Baran who was working at Rand at the time. Kleinrock & Barron had written a paper called "On Distributed Communication" which set the Cerf/Kahn minds in motion about what Cerf termed "voice-communications in packet mode." (Cerf observes here that "for all purposes, it was VOIP.")
Larry Roberts and Bob Taylor from ARPA contributed the basic idea of ARPANET, according to Cerf who is quick to point out he was "just a grad student at that time responsible for software" and shouldn't be given much credit at all until the time came for the first internet concepts and of course, TCP/IP.
Kleinrock*, Taylor, Roberts and Davies as some of the world's top scientists, computer experts and electrical engineers had all been involved in one way or another at one time with ARPA. Kahn had also been at Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN), a Cambridge, US-based computer company which won the government contract to build the ARPANET, forerunner to our internet today.
But the internet was not the internet just yet...
"In the spring of 1972," Cerf recalled, "Bob and I got together to discuss our work. I said to Bob: 'I don't know how we're going to put these things together.'"
Nonetheless, having been involved in connecting the first "four nodes" which were computers at UCLA, SRI, UCSB (University of California at Santa Barbara) and the University of Utah, Cerf & Kahn were uniquely qualified to lead the long-term charge into the internet.
By September of 1973, Cerf and Kahn presented the "internet design" to a group of scientists at the University of Sussex and got universally positive feedback. Then the IEEE magazine, "Transactions on Communications" unveiled the TCP/IP development to the world and the rest, as they say, was history. What, I asked Cerf, was the greatest threat to what they were doing? "The greatest threat to the internet," Cerf cleared his throat, "was a new initiative called OSI which was a seven-layer architecture format that I didn't think would work." After which initiative, Cerf said agonizingly, rhetoric flew for ten years - ten long years of defending his baby. The entire technology community was embroiled in exhaustive debate about the OSI vs. TCP/IP issue and choice.
Finally, in order to resolve the impasse once and for all, Cerf stepped in. He sent a letter to the National Institute of Science & Technology (NIST) which motivated them to create a "blue-ribbon committee". Now these kinds of committees rarely resolve anything, but this one did by selecting TCP/IP over the inferior architecture.
Cerf continued, "By 1988, I was convinced it was time for the service to emerge as a public good and I started working on getting permission to open up the NSFNET and ARPANET to the carriage of commercial traffic. That started in limited forms in 1989 with the interconnection of MCI Mail to the internet." Cerf was a one-man lobbying machine pursuing the peaceful global invasion of his pet project.
"Then by 1992," he marched on with his narrative, "legislation was passed that permitted commercial traffic to flow on the NSFNET backbone." The Ethernet had already come out of Xerox PARC which was an important development. "Next came Tim Berners-Lee's creation of the Worldwide Web; Marc Andreessen and the Mosaic version of WWW at the University of Illinois; and finally, the Netscape Communications IPO … the internet became a public phenomenon."
How hard was this for Cerf? "Well, the problem of giving birth to something and getting it out is a real challenge," Cerf stated emphatically supporting the "father" and "birth" metaphors.
Could the early internet have ignited World War III had it satisfied the military as the new indestructible communications system? Would Cerf have felt like the "father of the atomic bomb" if his work had resulted in global war even one won by America?
Cerf said: "Ironically I met Oppenheimer when I was about 13 and visiting Stanford University. The internet was developed during the Cold War period and I saw it as an important contribution to our command and control capability. It was not the US policy then to launch pre-emptive strikes."
As we discussed this omnipresent worldwide communications system, he talked about myriad issues which were fun to hear. In a surprising statement he said, "You're running the 1978 version of the internet today." Maybe that's why my browser window keeps crashing, I wondered to myself.
For Cerf, the future is what it's all about. He was quoted as saying: "Our mission is to make MCI into a company that generates at least half of its income from products or services that don't even exist today," a quote which might be heard from lots of senior executives - none of whom could ever deliver an invention like Vinton G. Cerf. In closing Cerf bubbles enthusiastically: "The internet was conceived in 1973, born in 1983, and emerged to the public in 1993. VOIP got "real" in 2003. I can hardly wait for 2013..."
Bill Robinson has appeared on CNN, PBS, Bloomberg and had his own segment on SKY News commenting on high-tech and marketing issues and has written columns and articles for FORTUNE Small Business, The Financial Times, Marketing Magazine (UK), Forbes.com, The Moscow Times, Cisco Systems iQ Magazine, United Airline's Hemispheres Magazine and Upside Magazine. Bill may be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org
*Dr. Kleinrock has a fascinating biography and was a real progenitor of the internet as we know it today. On Kleinrock's homepage here, the following two anecdotes can be found:
About the day they first connected (1969): "On the day after the IMP arrived (the Tuesday after Labor Day), the circus began - everyone who had any imaginable excuse to be there, was there. Kleinrock and his team were there; BBN was there; Honeywell was there (the IMP was built out of a Honeywell minicomputer); Scientific Data Systems was there (the UCLA host machine was an SDS machine); AT&T long lines was there (we were attaching to their network); GTE was there (they were the local telephone company); ARPA was there; the UCLA Computer Science Dept. administration was there; the UCLA campus administration was there; plus an army of Computer Science graduate students was there. Expectations and anxieties were high because, everyone was concerned that their piece might fail. Fortunately, the team had done its job well and bits began moving between the UCLA computer and the IMP that same day. By the next day they had messages moving between the machines. THUS WAS BORN THE ARPANET, AND THE COMMUNITY WHICH HAS NOW BECOME THE INTERNET!"
About Kleinrock's "crashing of the network": "Indeed, under Kleinrock's supervision, UCLA served for many years as the ARPANET Measurement Center (in one interesting experiment in the mid-1970's, UCLA managed to control a geosynchronous satellite hovering over the Atlantic Ocean by sending messages through the ARPANET from California to an East Coast satellite dish). As head of the Center, it was Kleinrock's mission to stress the network to its limits and, if possible, expose its faults by 'crashing' the net; in those early days, Kleinrock could bring the net down at will, each time identifying and repairing a serious network fault. Some of the faults he uncovered were given descriptive names like Christmas Lockup and Piggyback Lockup. By mid-1970, ten nodes were connected, spanning the USA."