February 1, having visited nine countries in January, I happily landed at Dulles airport, taking my carry-on luggage straight through customs and into my waiting rental car. My hotel was a minor miracle, cheap and comfortable. I went straight down to the bar in the basement and settled in with the New York Times, a bacon cheeseburger, and a bottle of Brooklyn Lager, a beer as “vital and diverse as the city itself.”
Sunday evening, I met Tony Rutkowski, who had quit his job at the swamp of the ITU and moved back to Washington to work for Sprint International. Although we had exchanged lots of e-mail messages, it was still nice to talk in person. While e-mail is certainly convenient, person-to-person is still a communication medium that has a much higher semantic bandwidth.
Monday, I made an early morning reverse commute out to the suburbs, thumbing my nose at the parking lot heading into the city. In fact, it was so early when I got to Reston that I stopped into the local Sheraton for breakfast.
“We are glad to be able to contribute to the start of your day,” the menu proclaimed. “We bid you a wonderful day.” Thinking I might have misread my itinerary, I pulled it out to make sure I wasn’t in California.
After my power breakfast of a bagel with lox, I wandered over to the headquarters of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), the institutional home of such network luminaries as Drs. Vinton Cerf and Bob Kahn.
My first meeting was with Vint Cerf, the Chairman of the Internet Architecture Board (IAB) and an engineer whose involvement with TCP/IP dates back to the very first ARPANET nodes. Vint is famous for his ability, despite a huge stack of lofty responsibilities, for keeping up a detailed knowledge of the protocol suite at all layers.
Vint Cerf is the kind of person who can switch from briefing a congressional aide to an in-depth discussion of dynamic routing protocols, public key cryptography, or the inner details of multimedia messaging. I have never seen him attend a working group meeting at technical forums like the IETF without making at least one substantive contribution.
Technical issues, though still demanding, now have to contend with organizational questions, issues that suck up more and more of his time. The most pressing issue was the future of the IAB and the IETF, two organizations that had been remarkably successful but were institutionally adrift.
The IAB started as a technical advisory committee to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but when the ARPANET died, the IAB was no longer an official body. Through technical leadership rather than governmental fiat, the IAB continued to guide the development of the TCP/IP protocols in the Internet community.
The IAB had to bear the liabilities of its DoD origins in a changed world. It didn’t help, of course, that the IAB remained an all-American group until 1991, when Christian Huitema from France was asked to join. (Not to mention the fact that in 1992, the IAB remains exclusively composed of white, western males.)
Lack of accountability and lack of international representation made it increasingly difficult for the IAB to exercise leadership. The standards-making activities of the IAB and the IETF also raised issues of due process, antitrust liability, copyright, and a host of other issues difficult to resolve without a more formal organization.
Vint Cerf’s solution to these problems was to announce the formation of a new professional association, the Internet Society. The IAB and the IETF would become activities of the Internet Society.
The Society managed to attract quite a few other projects as well. The INET conference which evolved from the Larry Landweber seminars would become the annual meeting of the Society. Tony Rutkowski would run the publications board and hoped to produce a newsletter of topical information and a journal of archival material.
Launching an activity of this magnitude is never easy, and by February 1992, Vint Cerf had already spent many months getting the project off the ground. A key activity was selecting the initial trustees and drafting bylaws. Though the Society would be member-run, the first board would appoint itself. Then, in 1993, the first third of the trustees would be up for election. Within three years, the entire 21 person board would have been elected by members.
Self-selection of the first board and the decision to have the first official meeting at INET 92 in Kobe, Japan was causing some grumbling by American engineers, who were used to having IETF meetings in accessible U.S. locations.
One of the key architectural assumptions of the Internet Society is that it must be truly international to succeed in giving legitimacy to the standards-making activities of the IAB. As such, Cerf and many others felt that holding the first meeting out of the U.S. and appointing a truly international board were crucial to its success.
A set of bylaws and other procedures, control by a group of trustees, and other formal structures were also a change from the IETF, which had run its first meetings by shouting out policy at plenary meetings. Even in 1992, the IETF ran as a pretty loose sort of organization.
More elaborate procedures were also crucial if the activities leading to a standard were ever challenged. Standards promote interoperability, but can also be challenged as a potential antitrust violation if it appears that there is collusion to restrain trade.
The big challenge was how to change the process to put in some form of accountability, yet still maintain the effectiveness and flexibility of the IAB and the IETF. Too much process, and the whole thing would degenerate into just another standards body, pumping out paper and enjoying many fine lunches and dinners.
The Internet Society had been simmering in the six months since the announcement of its formation at INET 91 in Copenhagen. Despite the low profile, 800 members had joined. Though this was a small fraction of the 95,000 members of the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM), Cerf was encouraged and saw it as a good start. The board was also falling into place, with members from Japan, Australia, and several European countries joining the American members.
Next to Vint Cerf’s office is that of Bob Kahn, the founder and president of CNRI. Kahn was a Senior Scientist at BBN responsible for the design of the ARPANET, then moved over to DARPA as Director of the Information Processing Techniques Office where he initiated the largest computer R&D program ever undertaken by the federal government, a billion dollar Strategic Computing Program. He still plays a crucial role in the Internet, with CNRI coordinating the 5 gigabit testbeds he helped to establish.
A former MIT professor, Kahn is described by most people who have met him as an extremely quick study. Hand him any topic and in a few minutes he will have something intelligent to say about it. A classic long-range thinker, he devotes much of his time to the question of how to build an effective infrastructure.
We talked about the “look and feel” of an infrastructure — what somebody needs to know in order to use it. Cars and roads, for example, require a fairly extensive knowledge base, ranging from how to use the pedals to how to read a street sign. Other infrastructures, ranging from electrical systems to education to banking and insurance, all have their own particular look and feel.
The issue for the Internet was providing a growth path for this infrastructure, which would support a pervasive, global Internet. With 4 to 7 million people already on the Internet, how would it grow to support an order of magnitude more?
It was interesting to look at what types of organizations were getting plugged into the Internet. Small users were rapidly getting on to some portion of the network, even if it meant something as simple as getting an MCI Mail account and learning how to use a modem and address messages.
Likewise, very large (or very high tech) users were getting plugged in, linking their campus networks to regional providers. They had the staff to manage their own networks, extending the Internet out to the users.
What seemed to be missing altogether, though, was a way for medium-sized enterprises without a high tech component to get on the network. Even getting a simple Novell network up and running was causing more stress than necessary.
I continued my day of meetings and greetings, ending up the evening having dinner with one of my editors, Stephanie Faul. Over a dish of crunchy jelly fish salad, we talked about her latest projects in the world of freelance. In addition to her usual stint acting as a ghost editor for the AAA Magazine, Stephanie had just landed a corporate writing gig, helping to organize a seminar with the prescient theme “The Future is Tomorrow.”
Tuesday was spent hiding from the cold, doing research in the Hawk and Dove, one of a half-dozen Irish bars on Capitol Hill. After paying a call at the Office of Technology Assessment to brief a staff member on the Bruno project, I took the metro under the mall to the offices of the National Science Foundation.
Steve Goldstein, the manager of international programs for the NSFNET, had invited me to his home for dinner and we would join his carpool from the NSE. He had just come back from a WAIS symposium and brought me a set of the conference materials. We both agreed that WAIS could easily prove to be the Lotus 1–2–3 of the Internet, providing users with a simple, intuitive way to get real information.
Steve and his life-partner Isabelle were both members of a gourmet cooking club and my timing was lucky enough to get the leftovers. While we waited for Isabelle to get home, Steve heated up a pork roast stuffed with mushrooms and a dish of fennel bulbs in a delicate cheese sauce while we talked about the NSF and the NSFNET.
The NSF has taken its charter to help U.S. science and engineering as a broad mandate which ranges from hands-on science museums for children all the way to funding research into teraflop computers.
The NSFNET is a perfect example of the broad interpretation NSF takes of its mandate. Instead of dedicated networks for supercomputer centers, the agency built a system of general-purpose regional networks connected by a backbone — a true infrastructure.
Steve Goldstein described the NSF funding philosophy as strategically placed “drops of oil,” hoping to leverage comparatively small expenditures to achieve a broad impact. The drops of oil philosophy was necessary because the agency’s budget was fairly small. Program directors have to husband their money carefully and overhead is kept down to a paltry four percent.
The international program of NSFNET, for example, makes do with a budget well under a million dollars per year, a minuscule amount when you consider how high telephone tariffs are and what an important role NSF played in building a global Internet.
To spread the money out, NSFNET usually funds half-circuits. Most international circuits are actually operated by the two PTTs involved, each making up the tariff for the outgoing line. Typically, NSF only picks up the cost for the U.S. half-circuit, which are often significantly lower in cost — anywhere from 20 percent to factors of 2, 3, and even 4 times less. In some cases, the international partner will pick up the cost for both half-circuits. NORDUnet, for example, paid for the whole line to the U.S. for some time until the NSF was able to pitch in.
In the case of the “fat pipes,” the high bandwidth circuits overseas, there is usually a consortium of agencies that pay. The link to the U.K., for example, has the NSF, DARPA, and NASA sharing the costs in one direction and the Joint Network Team and the Ministry of Defense sharing the other side.
In addition to sharing costs for general-purpose infrastructure, NSF is able to get a lot for its money because of simple competition. Sprint, for example, is the manager of international connection services for NSF, and won that contract because of a very aggressive bid response. Sprint didn’t do this out of altruism — the experience it gained with NSF was invaluable in capturing other international business.
NSF encourages regional solutions as a more efficient way to connect the world. To Europe, for example, the NSF helps fund the lines to INRIA in France and NORDUnet in Stockholm, both major gateways for their respective regions.
The agency also uses line sharing to buy larger pipes. The NSFNET backbone, for example, does not actually lease telephone lines. Instead, NSFNET contracts for a T3 service which runs on an underlying network owned by ANS. That underlying network carries traffic both for NSF and for ANS commercial customers, with packets from the two sources freely commingling.
Line sharing is applied to international links as well. NSF joined the EBONE consortium as an informal “supporting organization,” the same category chosen by CERN and IBM. Supporting in this case meant that NSFNET and EBONE would be connected, but that NSF would not sign the memorandum of understanding.
Line sharing in EBONE meant that traffic from AlterNet and NSFNET might share the same lines. Government regulations prohibited NSF from funding commercial traffic, and this was the root cause of many of the appropriate use restrictions on the Internet. Allowing traffic from commercial services to share a link with NSFNET, provided the commercial service paid its own way, was an important step forward.
Acceptable use policies were set up in the era of the physical networks when NSF leased 56 kbps lines. The idea was that NSF should not be subsidizing traffic generated by those outside the community it meant to serve — the scientific and engineering researchers.
This policy was getting harder and harder to enforce, particularly if the enforcement mechanism was to bar all traffic originating from certain broad groups from traversing key links. With NSFNET simply paying for service, it no longer really mattered if packets fraternized, so long as the educational and research communities got their money’s worth.
Wednesday morning, I walked a few blocks north to Dupont Circle to the home of Bob Barad, founder and sole employee of Baobab Communications. Bob runs the Baobab bulletin board, a Fidonet node specializing in African development.
His house is full of old maps of Africa, and blankets, baskets, and masks collected during his two years in the Peace Corps in Sierra Leone and on many subsequent visits to the continent. After his two years in swamp rice development in Sierre Leone, he came back for a law degree, then returned to Togo on a Fulbright scholarship.
Following that he spent a couple of years at the World Bank, an experience he diplomatically called “an extension of my education.” Bob started spending his spare time dialing into bulletin boards. He got an account on PeaceNet and found he could start talking to people in Africa. He was hooked.
Soon he had hung out his shingle as a freelance development consultant, a business that seems to draw heavily on his Fidonet expertise. He had quickly tired of being a user of other peoples' boards and wanted to set up his own node.
Bob had been corresponding with a digital nomad named Mike Jensen, a man who travels the world with a laptop, setting up Fidonet nodes. Jensen blew into town one day late in 1989, stayed at Bob’s house for a day, and Baobab was in business.
Fidonet is a network which can be thought of as the PC equivalent of the UNIX USENET system. It provides mail, file transfer, and news feeds, all managed by an informal volunteer hierarchy of city, regional, and national hubs. The free software and the cheap platforms it runs on have attracted the attention of many human rights, environmental, and other public interest groups.
Being able to set up a network anyplace there was a PC had proved valuable in Bob’s business. He had just completed a job putting in nodes between Chad, Mauritania, and a group in Arlington, Virginia. The Virginia group was a subcontractor on a U.S. AID program to provide a famine early warning system.
Satellite images of the weather are periodically broadcast by the European Space Agency. Data would be downloaded and processed, resulting in graphic images of the affected areas that would be placed in files totaling roughly 70 kbytes. These files would be transferred to floppy disks and sent by DHL to Chad and Mauritania for use by regional workers.
This was a situation ripe for automation. By elimination of the weekly DHL runs, the payback from the use of computers could be immediately quantified, a situation very different from those trying to justify the more nebulous benefits such as “increased interaction” resulting from general-purpose e-mail.
The Fidonet software was successfully installed and the first files transferred. The system worked so well that one site immediately requested the previous week’s file, which had not yet arrived by DHL.
The transfer of data uses the zmodem protocol on a direct call between the African sites and Arlington. Direct polling to the end destination is not unusual in Fidonet. While it is possible to hand off messages to a local gateway for percolation through the network, high priority data usually cuts through the hierarchy. To send mail to Africa, for example, Bob placed a biweekly call to the London hub, a site only a hop or two away from the African destinations.
The number of bulletin boards like Baobab in operation all over the world is truly incredible. Merely listing the boards in ASCII format makes for a file of 1.44 Mbytes. One of the great challenges of the Internet will be to give those BBS systems an easy way to integrate into the global network, providing better connectivity than just mail delivery, but doing so in a way that is cheap and easy.
I returned to my hotel to check out, only to discover that the window to my car had been broken in the overnight parking garage. I filled out forms for the parking garage, the police, Hertz, and American Express in order to get my keys back and sit on a pile of broken glass, sucking wind on the drive to Dulles Airport.