San Francisco

Tuesday morning, I took the shuttle from my hotel to the airport to await the arrival of the flight from Tokyo so I could meet George Abe, a manager of Infonet, a commercial, global IP network. The driver asked us for our airlines.

“United, Domestic,” one person shouted.

“United, International,” chimed in a second.

A couple in the back looked at each other in bewilderment. The lady elbowed her husband.

“Uh, United, Hawaii” he said.

I met George in an airport lounge. Incredibly energetic after a 15-hour flight, he bounced in, whipped out his view graphs, and started to tell me all about Infonet.

Infonet was originally started as a time-sharing company owned by Computer Sciences Corporation (CSC), offering application programs on a series of Univac 1180s running their own proprietary operating system. To access the mainframes, by 1971 the company had started offering an X.25-like packet service in competition with companies like Tymnet.

In the mid-1980s, George Abe worked as a member of a 3-man team to upgrade this proprietary network to X.25. Then, CSC decided packet networks were not their cup of tea and decided to divest. Infonet managers were able to convince a large number of PTTs around the world that they needed a way to compete against global giants like IBM and AT&T. The sales pitch worked and Infonet became 100 percent owned by telephone companies, with major shares held by MCI, the German Deutsche Bundespost, and the French Transpac, with smaller stakes help by eight other PTTs.

By the late 1980s, the network had grown and was based on multiplexors located in 34 key locations. Attached to these core nodes were X.25 switches, PBXs, and other interface devices, all connected together by international circuits.

In 1990, Abe spent a week in Finland with Juha Heinänen, and the network soon added Cisco routers along with the X.25 switches, allowing Infonet to provide IP service. Like the Finnish PTT service, the IP service was a way of connecting corporate networks together.

The first question from MIS managers when George described the service invariably was “Are you connected to the Internet?”

At first, George would hem and haw, sheepishly admitting that they weren’t connected with the rest of the world.

“Good!” was the usual reply. Large corporate MIS staffs were scared stiff of the security implications of the Internet, imagining hordes of hackers breaking into their systems.

Increasingly, though, users were beginning to demand some form of interconnection, at least mail connectivity if nothing else. Infonet was using PSI as a service provider, although I noticed that George Abe had only an MCI Mail address.

The solution to access to the broader Internet was similar to the one I saw in Finland. Inside of Infonet, a router at the border of the PSI domain has access control lists. If a customer of Infonet pays a fee, traffic for that particular Internet address can make it through the router. Otherwise, even though there is data link level connectivity with PSI, the router acts as a firewall, keeping out IP level traffic for those who don’t want it.

What was interesting about Infonet was not the few hundred customers it had signed up by the end of 1991, but the corporate backers. In addition to its shareholder PTTs, Infonet had enlisted most of the other monopoly carriers around the world as sales affiliates. In many countries, therefore, a company that wanted international IP service would have to deal with Infonet.

I wasn’t quite sure what to make of this company, but made a mental note that it was certainly worth watching. I left George Abe to run a crucial errand down at Interop.

Ole Jacobsen, publisher of ConneXions, had asked me to help settle an Acronym Dispute (AD). Barry Leiner, a former DARPA program manager, had submitted an article which discussed, in part, the International Standards Organization. Ole, with his eagle eye, had tried to explain that ISO really stood for the International Organization for Standardization, but Leiner insisted that a dyslexic acronym could not possibly be correct.

I brought Ole the cover sheet from an ISO standard, a worthless piece of paper that cost me U.S. $10. Sure enough, the International Organization for Standardization had its name proudly embossed on the front. Using the document to silence Barry Leiner was perhaps the first time this particular standard had found a useful application.