10 choices that were critical to the Net's success
By Dan Gillmor
Mercury News Technology Columnist
In our modern, corporate culture, the rise of the Internet is a happy accident. In its roots and growth, says Scott Bradner, the Net never had a business model.
How did technologists, government officials and a host of other early players turn something with no obvious business model into a system that has become so intrinsic to the new century? A series of decisions proved critical -- choices that helped turn data transport into a commodity business and put the power in users' hands, not in the centralized telecommunications companies' controlling grasp.
At a telecom conference in Massachusetts last week, Bradner, senior technical consultant at Harvard University and a longtime leader in the formation of Internet standards, listed 10 crucial decisions along the way. (You may have other candidates; send them to me and I'll list them on my Web page). Here are Bradner's picks:
1) Make it all work on top of existing networks. Designers deliberately didn't try to build a single, new über-data network -- it was about ``networks, not a network,'' Bradner observes. This meant supporting multiple network types by putting a simple set of rules, now called the Internet protocols, on top. This added layer was wide open for innovation, not controlled by a few players.
2) Use packets, not circuits. Telephone networks open a circuit from one phone to another, keeping the connection open until the call is ended. The Internet splits messages into little packages called packets, which are sent to their destination by various routes and at various times. This was a radical idea at the time, but it has been one of the qualities that makes the Internet so basically reliable and resilient under stress.
3) Create a ``routing'' function. Stand-alone boxes along the way from point to point make instant decisions on what route to send each packet by, reacting to failures in the networks. Again, this was a decentralizing function that enhanced reliability.
4) Split the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP), which are generally used together in much of what we do on the Net and are called TCP/IP. Originally they were meant to be tied together in a single service designed to guarantee that the stream of data would get to its destination complete and in perfect order. To do this, however, would have given network services far less flexibility. IP by itself offers an unreliable but still enormously valuable service, simply sending the packets through the network without checking to see if they all get there.
TCP makes sure, among other things, that they actually do get there. So an application can use TCP if it cares most about reliability, while another application can use IP (and other protocols) if it's more concerned with timeliness -- such as an Internet phone call -- where losing a few packets matters much less than getting most of the data there on time.
5) The Defense Department's Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) funds the University of California-Berkeley, to put TCP/IP into the Unix operating system originally developed by AT&T. Berkeley thereby created a full but low-cost network operating system, along with a full suite of network applications, that computer start-up companies flocked to use in their boxes. It was, says Bradner, "a way to get into the networking game without spending a lot of money." So it spread fast.
6) CSNET, an early network used by universities, connects with the ARPANET, the Internet precursor network operated by ARPA, which funded much of the early technical work on what later became the Net. ARPANET use had been restricted solely to government-funded individuals. The connection was for e-mail only, but it led to much more university research on networks and a more general understanding among students, faculty and staff of the value of internetworking. When students graduated, they sought employers that had the technology.
7) The National Science Foundation (NSF) requires users of the NSFNET to use TCP/IP, not competing protocols. This decision about the NSFNET, which was originally created to connect supercomputer centers, forced wider availability of the TCP/IP protocol, and helped prevent a wasteful "proliferation of miscellaneous transport protocols for the Internet," Bradner says.
8) International telecommunications standards bodies reject TCP/IP, then create a separate standard called OSI. TCP/IP, remember, was designed as a low layer on top of which other applications, such as e-mail, would be created. OSI was carrier-centric, a suite of protocols that included things like e-mail. Had TCP/IP been accepted and then co-opted by the international groups and telecom companies, things we now take for granted might not have appeared, or might have been under central control. One the fundamentals of the Net is we can create new protocols on top of IP, as Tim Berners-Lee did to create the World Wide Web, says Bradner -- ``and we don't have to have permission of the carriers to do that.
9) The NSF creates an ``Acceptable Use Policy'' restricting NSFNET use to noncommercial activities. Although this rule grew blurry, it was largely heeded despite fierce criticism. The result was an incentive to create commercial network providers. The commercial providers created a huge business of long-haul ``backbone'' and local carriers upon which the Internet relies today.
10) Once things start to build, government stays mostly out of the way. If the Internet suffered from a lack of regulation, Bradner says, it was ``a good suffering'' for all of us.
I sent Dan Gillmor an email with two more candidates for The Critical Success List:
11) THE LACK OF SETTLEMENTS($), despite Al Weis and The "Nice Guys" Team at Advanced Network and Services(ANS) Best Efforts to "force" their introduction.
12) THE FOUNDING OF THE CIX -- The Commercial Internet Exchange [this is like the NIX here in CZ-land]
($) What are SETTLEMENTS? Say, for example, you place a long distance phone call, say from Prague to San Francisco, a SETTLEMENT is involved: CESKY TELECOM(1) gets a portion for transporting My Voice to an "over the puddle" (ocean) long-distance provider(2) that lands the call in the U.S. Then, another provider(3), like your local telephone company, takes over to get the call To You. As a result, each of these provider(s) -- Local Originating(1), Long-Distance/Over-The-Ocean(2) & End Terminating(3) each get "a cut" of the costs incurred for carrying the call. This is called a SETTLEMENT -- where you divvy up the pie between all who were involved in the transaction.
When ANS entered The Scene, since the NSFNET backbone was carrying just about all of the "long distance" traffic between the regional Internet providers (such as BARRNET in the SF Bay Area) as well as the budding commercial providers such as UUNET, Anterior Technology (my company at the time, which was the 2nd commercial internet provider), then PSINET, et al entered the game ANS tried Very Very Hard to force all us new, small, budding guys to engage in telco like settlements to PAY THEM for the traffic we put across their just-handed to them network. While these settlements were the normal in X.25/X.75 telco commercial networks, the budding Internet (industry) adopted a "sender keeps all" method... where you paid your local providers and they kept it all for themselves. These nascent commercial providers all started to connect to the CIX where it was possible to freely exchange traffic without SETTLEMENTS. I believe that if ANS had succeeded in their Darth Vader ways and means and managed to force a SETTLEMENTS model on The Net in the early days it would have vastly constricted The Oxygen Flow and growth would have been inappropriately retarded, stymied and stunted. I'm sure others like Rick Adams, Gordon Cook, Dave Farber et al can provide more of the gory details of the Up Close and Personal trench warfare that was taking place during these times. But we should not forget that we almost Lost It to avarice over community and cooperation and The Net, as we know it, would have been a very different place. Thank heavens Good prevailed over Evil.
[Edited by geoff on 14-09-2002 at 06:32 PM]
Geoff Goodfellow - beat.net
"success is getting what you want & happiness is wanting what you get."