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Internet decisions


By: Scott Bradner


From time to time it is useful to look back to see how one got to some place.  I was reminded that this might be a good time to look back to see how we got to the Internet of today when I got email this morning from Dennis Jennings noting that the NSFNet project was approved 21 years ago on September 17 1985.  By one measure the Internet has reached the age of majority in Washington DC - one of the places that seems to have the worst understanding of what the Internet was, is and can be.


The technology trickle that became the Internet started with research into packet-based networking in the early to mid 1960s by Len Klienrock, Larry Roberts, Paul Baron and others.  (Google can find lots of information on these folk.) This research led to a 1967 design session run by Roberts that led to a request for proposals for what was then called an IMP but these days would be called a router.  The RFP was won by BBN and the first 4 IMPs were installed in 1969 creating the start of the ARPANET.  By 1971 15 IMPs, including one at Harvard, were installed and interconnected and the ARPANET was quickly becoming the important way for federally funded researchers to communicate.  But access to the ARPANET was limited to federally funded researchers and staff on the connected machines.  For what it's worth I've come up with a list of 10 key decisions that got us from those early days to the Net we have today.  <<for a sidebar: Internet histories compiled by the Internet Society -


o use existing networks: do not try to create a entirely new infrastructure - run over what already existed


o use packets rather than circuits: no reason for a carrier to be involved in setting up communications


o create router function: to logically isolate sections of the network


o split TCP and IP: make the level of reliability an end system option


o US government fund Berkley to add TCP/IP to Unix and make software easily available 


o enable CSNET sites to use ARPANET for email: this enabled us to allow anyone at the university to use the ARPANET in 1981 -  start of generations of students who regularly used email


o Dennis Jennings, as manager of NSFNet, required the use of TCP/IP on NSFNet: reinforced TCP/IP as THE standard


o ISO turned down offer to take over TCP/IP standardization: if they had accepted, the Internet would be carrier-centric rather than open


o NSF blocking use of NSFNet for commercial use: forced the development of commercial ISPs


o minimal regulation: US government did not impose any significant regulations on the Internet, letting innovation run free


Note that these decisions, other than that of Dennis about TCP/IP, facilitated rather than mandated actions.  That attitude is now well behind us in Washington. 


The too common feeling in Washington is that the Internet is far too regulation-free (and maybe too good at innovating).  Congress & the FCC are fighting to see to fix this perceived problem.


I have no idea if we will be able to look at the Internet 10 years from now and see anything we would currently recognize as the Net.  Many in Washington seem to hope not.


disclaimer: I predict that Harvard will look more like Harvard in 10 years (1/37th of its age) than the Internet will look like the Internet in 10 years (1/4 of its age) but that is my prediction not Harvard's