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Stephen Wolff -- Hustling for Innovation

Cisco Employee Receives ISOC Award for Contributions to Internet Development

July 30, 2002

by Charles Waltner, News@Cisco

Stephen WolffRarely has a hustler been so lucky.

Stephen Wolff is considered one of the fathers of the Internet for his efforts promoting commercial interest in the now ubiquitous communications network. But in the days before the World Wide Web and graphics-based browsers, Wolff says he felt more like a hard-pressed salesman as he went around the country hawking the Internet to dubious corporate executives, public officials, and audiences. As history can attest, Wolff's message finally reached the masses.

Now Wolff is putting his knack for nurturing promising technology to use as part of Cisco's University Research Program (URP). Just as Wolff could see the potential of the Internet before most others, he is now helping the URP search for new technologies incubating in the country's universities and academic think tanks.

Certainly, Wolff is the right man for the job. As testament to his contributions to networking ubiquity, the Internet Society (ISOC) recently presented Wolff with its prestigious Jonathan B. Postel Service Award. The Society selected Wolff for his exceptional contributions to the Internet's development, noting: "The personal leadership of Dr. Wolff, often under conditions of public controversy, has been an indispensable ingredient in surmounting a daunting array of technical, operational, and economic challenges. His extraordinary commitment to the growth and success of the Internet reflects the highest standard of service to the networking community."

While Wolff is perhaps best known for promoting the Internet while serving at the National Science Foundation, he has been in the thick of innovation throughout his career.

At the National Science Foundation (NSF) he also directed NSF's Gigabit Testbed project, the first feasibility study of IP networking at gigabit speeds that was jointly funded by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). Prior to his tenure at the NSF, Wolff spent 14 years as a communications and technology researcher for the United States Army. He is credited with introducing UNIX and leading the minicomputer "revolt" within the Army's research labs during the early 1980s. He also supervised development of technology for ARPANET, the first operational packet-switched network and precursor to the Internet.

Wolff started his technology career with a Ph.D. in Electrical Engineering from Princeton University in 1961 and subsequent post-doctoral work at Imperial College in 1962. For 10 years after that he taught electrical engineering at the Johns Hopkins University, specializing in statistical communication theory.

He left the NSF and joined Cisco Systems in 1994. Wolff says at the time he had achieved the goal of bringing the Internet into the public realm, the NSF was ready for new leadership in networking, and he was ready for new challenges.

"My specialty was networking and communications, and I wanted to go with the best," he says.

Wolff now serves officially as a business development manager for the Academic Research and Technology Initiative (ARTI) program. In this role he helps promote the URP, searching out promising candidates for the program's $1.5 million annual grants budget. The three-year-old organization's charter is to fund long-term research projects from which Cisco may benefit through the general advance of data networking technology. "It's the principle that a rising tide lifts all boats," Wolff says.

Wolff believes that grants from commercial enterprises such as Cisco can have a profound influence on the ability of researchers to gain other funding. He says that most financial support for such research comes from NSF and DARPA, and funding decisions by these organizations are often influenced by commercial interest in the project.

"Our grants are seen as an endorsement of a proposed line of research," Wolff says. "Even a small grant can make a big difference in the success a university researcher has in gaining government funding."

Prior to his current role as part of the URP, Wolff directed Cisco's involvement with the Internet2 and Abilene projects, both efforts driven by the higher education community to create a next generation super high-bandwidth Internet backbone network. Over the later part of 1990s Cisco contributed more than $15 million in money and equipment to these joint public and private initiatives. Currently, the ARTI program continues to drive Cisco's involvement with similar National Research Networks in the U.S. and around the world. As with the original Internet, these projects are building their foundations with the university community and expect to evolve the technology into the commercial sector.

With 40 years of experience in communications and computers, Wolff has seen most of the digital revolution. For example, as an undergraduate, he was given a walk-through demonstration-literally-of the first commercially successful digital computer, the UNIVAC 1. The circuitry that filled up the walk-in CPU of the UNIVAC I can now fit on a fingertip.

Despite such a broad perspective on technology, he continues to be amazed by what it can do, particularly of the "extreme" robustness of TCP/IP communications.

"I stand in awe of the people who designed those protocols because they couldn't have had any inkling of the speeds and applications we are using today," Wolff says.

Even though Wolff sees that the intersection of technology and public policy has been historically challenging, he remains optimistic about the potential of technology to improve. In the meantime, Wolff will just keep hustling.

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