How the Internet came to be: The Internet takes off

by Vinton Cerf, as told to Bernard Aboba
Copyright (C) 1993 Vinton Cerf. All rights reserved. May be reproduced in any medium for noncommercial purposes.
This node is a part of How the Internet Came to Be node


By the mid-1980s there was a significant market for Internet-based products. In the 1990s we started to see commercial services showing up, a direct consequence of the NSFNet initiative, which started in 1986 as a 56 Kbps network based on LSI-11s with software developed by David Mills, who was at the University of Delaware. Mills called his NSFNet nodes "Fuzzballs."

The NSFNet, which was originally designed to hook supercomputers together, was quickly outstripped by demand and was overhauled for T1. IBM, Merit, and MCI did this, with IBM developing the router software. Len Bozack was the Stanford student who started Cisco Systems. His first client: Hewlett-Packard. Meanwhile Proteon had gotten started, and a number of other routing vendors had emerged. Despite having built the first gateways (now called routers), BBN didn't believe there was a market for routers, so they didn't go into competition with Wellfleet, ACC, Bridge, 3COM, Cisco, and others. The exponential growth of the Internet began in 1986 with the NSFNet. When the NCP to TCP transition occurred in 1983 there were only a couple of hundred computers on the network. As of January 1993 there are over 1.3 million computers in the system. There were only a handful of networks back in 1983; now there are over 10,000.

In 1988 I made a conscious decision to pursue connection of the Internet to commercial electronic mail carriers. It wasn't clear that this would be acceptable from the standpoint of federal policy, but I thought that it was important to begin exploring the question. By 1990, an experimental mail relay was running at the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) linking MCI Mail with the Internet. In the intervening two years, most commercial email carriers in the U.S. are linked to Internet and many others around the world are following suit.

In this same time period, commercial Internet service providers emerged from the collection of intermediate-level networks inspired and sponsored by the National Science Foundation as part of its NSFNet initiatives. Performance Systems International (PSI) was one of the first, spinning off from NYSERNet. UUNET Technologies formed Alternet; Advanced Network and Systems (ANS) was formed by IBM, MERIT, and MCI (with its ANS CO+RE commercial subsidiary); CERFNet was initiated by General Atomics which also runs the San Diego Supercomputer Center; JVNCNet became GES, Inc., offering commercial services; Sprint formed Sprintlink; Infonet offered Infolan service; the Swedish PTT offered SWIPNET, and comparable services were offered in the UK and Finland. The Commercial Internet eXchange was organized by commercial Internet service providers as a traffic transfer point for unrestricted service.

In 1990 a conscious effort was made to link in commercial and nonprofit information service providers, and this has also turned out to be useful. Among others, Dow Jones, Telebase, Dialog, CARL, the National Library of Medicine, and RLIN are now online.

The last few years have seen internationalization of the system and commercialization, new constituencies well outside of computer science and electrical engineering, regulatory concerns, and security concerns from businesses and out of a concern for our dependence on this as infrastructure. There are questions of pricing and privacy; all of these things are having a significant impact on the technology evolution plan, and with many different stakeholders there are many divergent views of the right way to deal with various problems. These views have to be heard and compromises worked out.

The recent rash of books about the Internet is indicative of the emerging recognition of this system as a very critical international infrastructure, and not just for the research and education community.

I was astonished to see the CCITT bring up an Internet node; the U.N. has just brought up a node, un.org; IEEE and ACM are bringing their systems up. We are well beyond critical mass now. The 1990s will continue this exponential growth phase. The other scary thing is that we are beginning to see experimentation with packet voice and packet video. I fully anticipate that an Internet TV guide will show up in the next couple of years.

I think this kind of phenomenon is going to exacerbate the need for understanding the economics of these systems and how to deal with charging for use of resources. I hesitate to speculate; currently where charges are made they are a fixed price based on the size of the access pipe. It is possible that the continuous transmission requirements of sound and video will require different charging because you are not getting statistical sharing during continuous broadcasting. In the case of multicasting, one packet is multiplied many times. Things like this weren't contemplated when the flat-rate charging algorithms were developed, so the service providers may have to reexamine their charging policies.

Concurrent with the exponential explosion in Internet use has come the recognition that there is a real community out there. The community now needs to recognize that it exists, that it has a diversity of interests, and that it has responsibilities to those who are dependent on the continued health of the network. The Internet Society was founded in January 1992. With assistance from the Federal Networking Council, the Internet Society supports the IETF and IAB and educates the broad community by holding conferences and workshops, by proselytizing, and by making information available.

I had certain technical ambitions when this project started, but they were all oriented toward highly flexible, dynamic communication for military application, insensitive to differences in technology below the level of the routers. I have been extremely pleased with the robustness of the system and its ability to adapt to new communications technology.

One of the main goals of the project was "IP on everything." Whether it is frame relay, ATM, or ISDN, it should always be possible to bring an Internet Protocol up on top of it. We've always been able to get IP to run, so the Internet has satisfied my design criteria. But I didn't have a clue that we would end up with anything like the scale of what we have now, let alone the scale that it's likely to reach by the end of the decade.


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