Network Trailblazers "A Conversation with Vint Cerf," Part 1


Far too many people were involved in the creation and nurturing of the Internet for any one individual to claim credit for inventing it. But Vinton G. Cerf probably comes closest. He was involved in just about every major development in the Internet's history, from its earliest roots more than 40 years ago as an experiment at the Defense Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), through the development of email in the 1980s and the World Wide Web in the 1990s.

Cerf is probably best known for his seminal work with Robert Kahn in the late 1970s and early 1980s that lead to the development of TCP/IP, the set of protocols that control communications over the internet. Today, he continues to play a major role in the future of the Net as vice president and chief internet evangelist for Google.

Steve Wildstrom sat down recently with Cerf at Google's Reston, Va., offices for a wide-ranging discussion of the past, present, and future of the Internet. Here are some highlights of the talk.

On what has surprised him.

Cerf: I know this is going back much further than you expected. You were asking what surprised me. Several things. First of all, it's really quite surprising to see how quickly people adapted to network-based applications. This is part of what was intended by ARPA when it sponsored the program in the first place. They were more driven by resource-sharing than anything else and there are papers written at the time, around 1970, by Larry Roberts and Barry Wessler, that speak about resource sharing networks.

[ARPA's] motivation was economic. The computer science departments at the time kept insisting that they needed world-class computers to do world-class research on artificial intelligence and computational complexity and things like that.  Even ARPA couldn't afford to buy a new computer for every computer science department that it was funding. So they said, "Why don't we build a network and then you can share." There was a lot of grumbling about that. People said, "What if we don't get our fair share?' and ‘The other universities will steal our resources." ARPA basically said, "We're going to build this network and that's all there is to it."

Email caught on very quickly. It was surprising to see how quickly people adapted to that.  If you think social networking is current today in the 21st Century, just imagine being able to get yourself onto a distribution list in 1971 or 72.  The interest lists emerged out of that. The first one I can remember was called Sci-Fi Lovers….

There were some surprises that came out of that. I remember thinking that email would remove the need for a lot of travel because it overcame the time zone problem. Phone calls and conferences calls and things like that were much harder to arrange because everybody had to be awake at the same time, and email would overcome that with deferred communications. But after several years, it became apparent that the travel budget had gone up instead of coming down.  The question is why.  The answer turns out to be that the projects you could undertake were geographically much larger because email did overcome the time zone problem.  When you needed to get together face-to-face, which you did need to do, people came from farther away and there were more of them, because email allowed you to manage a more geographically dispersed project. So the cost of travel went up, not down.

On realizing that the Internet could make money.

Cerf: In 1988 Cisco was in full swing and was one of the first companies to monetize something about the internet, particularly equipment. The Interop [networking trade] show started to show off internet-based technology had these big exhibits. Eric Benhamou, who I think at that time was CEO of 3Com after [Bob] Metcalfe departed, and I were walking onto the show floor and I saw this two-story Cisco display and I was thinking, "Holy smoke. How much does that cost?" I asked Eric, and he said that it might be a quarter of a million dollars to build a display like that, and then another quarter-million to staff it for a week. And I thought, ‘Holy cow. Somebody thinks they are going to make real money out of the internet.'

On commercializing the Internet.

Cerf:  I got to thinking about how we were going to get the Internet into the hands of the general public. Up until then, only academics and the military had access to it…. I asked [the Federal Networking Council] for permission to hook up the MCI electronic mail service to the internet. This had two objectives. One, I was curious to see if the MCI mail system that I had engineered could be made to work with the internet. More important, I wanted to break the policy logjam that said you couldn't have commercial traffic flowing on the government backbone.

I got permission to do this and by the summer of '89, we actually get email flowing back and forth between the internet and MCImail. As soon as we announced this capability, everybody else that had a commercial email system said, "Wait a minute, the MCI guys can't have this privileged position." So CompuServe, Telemail from Telenet, OnTyme from Tymnet all insisted on being connected up as well. The government gave them permission to do that. So first of all, this broke the policy logjam on the carrying of commercial traffic on the backbone. More important and completely unexpected among the people running the commercial email systems, they could even inter-work with each other. Before that, they couldn't because they were isolated Nets. But now they had to speak internet. That meant that all of them could handle internet email and that meant they could refer to each other through the internet. So now we had all the commercial email systems interconnected to each other as a side affect."

Next week in Part 2 of this conversation, Cerf talks about what he would have done differently and what he sees for the future of the Net.

The contents or opinions in this feature are independent and do not necessarily represent the views of Cisco. They are offered in an effort to encourage continuing conversations on a broad range of innovative, technology subjects. We welcome your comments and engagement

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About Steve Wildstrom @swildstrom

Steve Wildstrom was a veteran technology journalist who wrote the Technology & You column at BusinessWeek.