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[ih] Internet working because Cold War-era pioneers designed it to handle almost anything

Coronavirus knocked down - at least for a time - internet pioneer Vinton
Cerf, who offers this reflection on the experience: "I don't recommend it.
. . It's very debilitating."

But Cerf, 76 and now recovering in his northern Virginia home, has better
news to report about the computer network he and others spent much of their
lives creating. Despite some problems, the Internet overall is handling
unprecedented surges of demand as it helps keep a fractured world connected
at a time of global catastrophe.

"This basic architecture is 50 years old, and everyone is online," Cerf
noted in a video interview over Google Hangouts, with a mix of triumph and
wonder in his voice. "And the thing is not collapsing."

The internet, born as a Pentagon project during some of the chillier years
of the Cold War, has taken such a central role in 21st Century civilian
society, culture and business that few pause any longer to appreciate its
wonders - except perhaps, as in the past few weeks, when it becomes even
more central to our lives.

Many facets of human life -- work, school, banking, shopping, flirting,
live music, government services, chats with friends, calls to aging parents
-- have moved online in this era of social distancing, all without breaking
the network. It has groaned here and there, as anyone who has struggled
through a glitchy video conference knows, but it has not failed.

"Resiliency and redundancy are very much a part of the Internet design,"
explained Cerf, whose passion for touting the wonders of computer
networking prompted Google in 2005 to name him its "Chief Internet
Evangelist," a title he still holds.

Comcast, the nation's largest source of residential internet, serving more
than 26 million homes, reports that peak traffic was up by nearly one third
in March, with some areas reaching as high as 60% above normal. Demand for
online voice, video and VPN connections -- all staples of remote work -
have surged, and peak usage hours have shifted from evenings, when people
typically stream video for entertainment, to daytime work hours.

Concerns about such shifting demands prompted European officials to request
downgrades in video streaming quality from major services such as Netflix
and YouTube, and there have been some localized internet outages and other
problems, including the breakage of a key transmission cable running down
the West coast of Africa -- an incident with no connection to the
coronavirus pandemic. Heavier use of home WiFi also has revealed
frustrating limits to those networks.

But so far internet industry officials report that they've been able to
manage the shifting loads and surges. To a substantial extent, the network
has managed them automatically because its underlying protocols adapt to
shifting conditions, working around trouble spots to find more efficient
routes for data transmissions and managing glitches in a way that doesn't
break connections entirely.

Some credit goes to Comcast, Google and the other giant, well-resourced
corporations essential to the internet's operation today. But perhaps even
more goes to the seminal engineers and scientists like Cerf, who for
decades worked to create a particular kind of global network -- open,
efficient, resilient and highly interoperable so anyone could join and
nobody needed to be in charge.

"They're deservedly taking a bit of a moment for a high five right now,"
said Jason Livingood, a Comcast vice president who has briefed some members
of the internet's founding generation about how the company has been
handling increased demands.

Cerf was a driving force in developing key internet protocols in the 1970s,
while working for Stanford University and, later, the Pentagon's Defense
Advanced Research Projects Agency, which provided key early research
funding but ultimately relinquished control of the network it spawned. He
also was among a gang of self-described "Netheads" who led an insurgency
against the dominant forces in telecommunications at the time, dubbed the
"Bellheads" for their loyalty to the Bell Telephone Company and its legacy

Bell, which dominated U.S. telephone service until it was broken up in the
1980s, and the similar monopolies in other countries wanted to connect
computers through a system much like their lucrative telephone systems,
with fixed networks of connections run by central entities that could make
all of the major technological decisions, control access and charge
whatever the market - or government regulators - would allow.

The vision of the Netheads was comparatively anarchic, relying on a few key
technological insights and a lot of faith in collaboration. The result was
a network - or really, a network of networks - with no chief executive, no
police, no taxman and no laws.

In their place were technical protocols, arrived at through a process for
developing expert consensus, that offered anyone access to the digital
world, from any properly configured device. Their numbers, once measured in
the dozens, now rank in the tens of billions, including phones,
televisions, cars, dams, drones, satellites, thermometers, garbage cans,
refrigerators, watches and so much more.

This Netheads' idea of a globe-spanning network that no single company or
government controlled goes a long way toward explaining why an Indonesian
shopkeeper with a phone made in China can log onto an American social
network to chat -- face to face and almost instantaneously -- with her
friend in Nigeria. That capability still exists, even as much of the world
has banned or restricted international travel.

"You're seeing a success story right now," said David Clark, a
Massachusetts Institute of Technology computer scientist who worked on
early internet protocols, speaking by the videoconferencing service Zoom.
"If we didn't have the internet, we'd be in an incredibly different place
right now. What if this had happened in the 1980s?"

Such a system carries a notable cost in terms of security and privacy, a
fact the world rediscovers every time there's a major data breach,
ransomware attack or controversy over the amount of information governments
and private companies collect about anyone who's online - a category that
includes more than half of the world's almost 8 billion people.

But the lack of a central authority is key to why the Internet works as
well as it does, especially at times of unforeseen demands.

Some of the early internet architects -- Cerf among them, from his position
at the Pentagon -- were determined to design a system that could continue
operating through almost anything, including a nuclear attack from the

That's one reason the system doesn't have any preferred path from Point A
to Point B. It continuously calculates and recalculates the best route, and
if something in the middle fails, the computers that calculate transmission
paths find new routes - without having to ask anyone's permission to do so.

Steve Crocker, a networking pioneer like Cerf, compared this quality to
that of a sponge, an organism whose functions are so widely distributed
that breaking one part does not typically cause the entire organism to die.

"You can do damage to a portion of it, and the rest of it just lumbers
forward," Crocker said, also speaking by Zoom.

Even more elementally, the Netheads believed in an innovation called
"packet-switching," which broke from the telephone company's traditional
model, called "circuit switching," that dedicated a line to a single
conversation and left it open until the participants hung up.

The Netheads considered that terribly wasteful given that any conversation
includes pauses or gaps that could be used to transmit data. Instead, they
embraced a model in which all communications were broken into chunks,
called packets, that continuously shuttled back and forth over shared
lines, without pauses.

The computers at either end of these connections reassembled the packets
into whatever they started as - emails, photos, articles or video - but the
network itself didn't know or care what it was carrying. It just moved the
packets around and let the recipient devices figure out what to do.

That simplicity, almost an intentional brainlessness at the Internet's most
fundamental level, is a key to its adaptability. As many others have said,
it's just a web of highways that everyone can use for almost any purpose
they desire.

Many of the internet's founding generation have memories of trying to
convince various Bellheads that packet-switching was the inevitable future
of telecommunications - cheaper, faster, easier to scale and vastly more
efficient and adaptable.

Those anecdotes all end the same way, with the telephone company titans of
the day essentially treating the Netheads as precocious but fundamentally
misguided children who, some day, might understand how telecommunications
technology really worked. And several acknowledged they celebrated just a
bit when the telephone companies gradually abandoned old-fashioned
circuit-switching for what was called "Voice Over IP" or VoIP. It was
essentially transmitting voice calls over the internet - using the same
technical protocols that Cerf and others had developed decades earlier.

Leonard Kleinrock, one of three scientists credited with inventing the
concept of packet switching in the 1960s, also was present for the first
transmission on the rudimentary network that would, years later, become the

That was Oct. 29, 1969, and Kleinrock was a computer scientist at the
University of California at Los Angeles. A student programmer tried to send
the message "login" to a computer more than 300 miles away, at the Stanford
Research Institute, but only got as far as the first two letters - "L" and
"O" - before the connection crashed.

Retelling the story by phone, over a line using the internet's
packet-switching technology instead of the one long preferred by the
"Bellheads," he recalled his own experience in trying to convince some
phone company executives that he had discovered a technology that would
change the world.

"They said, 'Little boy, go away,'" Kleinrock said. "So we went away."

And now, Kleinrock, 85 and staying home to minimize the risk of catching
the coronavirus, and enjoying that his home internet connection is 2,000
times faster than the phone-booth sized communications device that internet
pioneers used in 1969.

"The network," he said, "has been able to adapt in a beautiful way."


Geoff.Goodfellow at iconia.com
living as The Truth is True