NY Times notes 20th Anniversary of NSFnet

An article –The Team That Put the Net in Orbit – in today’s NY Times notes the recent 20th anniversary of the launch of NSFnet, a precursor to the Internet. Originally constructed to tie together the nation’s five supercomputer centers, by the time the academic network was shut down in 1996, it connected 6.6 million host computers and extended to 93 countries.

A critical decision was to adopt the then as unproven TCP/IP protocol. TCP/IP served as a vital lingua franca between previously incompatible computer networks.


It was Lawrence H. Landweber, a computer scientist at the University of Wisconsin , who in 1980 made the pioneering decision to use the basic TCP/IP Internet protocol for CSNET, an academic network that preceded NSFnet and laid the foundation for “internetworking.”

Al Gore

Mr. Gore had been instrumental in introducing legislation, beginning in 1988, to finance what he originally called a “national data highway.”

“Our corporations are not taking advantage of high-performance computing to enhance their productivity,” Mr. Gore, then a senator, said in an interview at the time. “With greater access to supercomputers, virtually every business in America could achieve tremendous gains.”

Ultimately, in 1991, his bill to create a National Research and Education Network did pass. Funded by the National Science Foundation, it was instrumental in upgrading the speed of the academic and scientific network backbone leading up to the commercialized Internet.

Alien concepts

When the National Science Foundation contracted with a partnership of I.B.M., the MCI Corporation and the Merit Network — a group of Michigan universities and a state agency — to manage the network’s backbone, the resulting Non-Profit Advanced Network Services created bitter resentment among early commercial Internet service providers.

“The idea of network as a service was a new thing, and it was difficult to convince everybody a) that it was a good idea and b) that it was legal,” said Steve Wolff, director of network research at the National Science Foundation from 1986 to 1995. According to a wide range of conference participants, NSFnet ultimately succeeded because of both the hacker culture of engineers that built the system and the very nature of the network they were creating; it fostered intellectual collaboration in a way not previously possible.

“The model of a network where no one is in charge is a model that can scale,” said Douglas E. Van Houweling, the chairman of the Merit Network when the NSFnet backbone was constructed.

Giving the network time to develop was vital, he added, because the Internet “was an alien concept to the communication industry when it began growing.”

IBM’s role

While there was no risk for MCI, which was then an upstart trying to gain ground on AT&T, that was not true of I.B.M. The company played a crucial role in the development of the Internet, and it did so despite the fact that the new network was a direct competitive threat to its multibillion-dollar communications networking business, based on a competing standard known as Systems Network Architecture, or S.N.A.

“Although we had the blessing of senior management at I.B.M., they had no idea how disruptive this would be,” said John A. Armstrong, I.B.M.’s director of research at the time the NSFnet was built.

“For the first time in the history of computing, all of the computing platforms spoke the same language,” said Allan H. Weis, a veteran I.B.M. researcher.

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