Internaut: The Net started out as a federal experiment

Shawn P. McCarthy

The typical citizen probably thinks of the Internet as something that appeared in the mid-1990s. But most government employees likely have a better understanding of the Net's history.

The 33-year-old Internet traces its roots to the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's Arpanet, which first connected computers at the University of California at Los Angeles, the University of California at Santa Barbara, Stanford Research Institute and the University of Utah.

By the time GCN was founded in 1982, the Internet, as it came to be called, was expanding rapidly, with the Defense Department and the National Science Foundation rapidly wiring universities, government labs and military bases.

It's tough to select the most important technologies driving the usefulness of the Net during the past 20 years, but here are some things that, in retrospect, proved to be major milestones.

IP. It's the networking protocol that could. IP was developed shortly after the first Arpanet computers were connected and refined into TCP/IP by the early 1970s. TCP/IP remains the driving force behind the Net.

Internet Domain Name System. Who wants to remember a string of numbers? The Net's worldwide and regional domain name servers keep track of the numbers for us. All we have to remember is short names. Like gcn.com.

Telnet. This technology is about as old as the Net. Log on to another computer, interact with it and even run programs remotely. Just don't expect much more than text and a command line.

File Transfer Protocol. FTP is another old-timer. Move your files back and forth between computers. Upload a program, then Telnet in to run it.

A popular early use of FTP was to share request-for-comment papers. Engineers working to extend the Net would propose solutions. Other engineers could download proposal papers to read about those ideas.

E-mail. Early network administrators basically developed e-mail to send messages to one another as they worked on the systems.

As engineers started reading and disagreeing with one another's RFC papers, it soon gave way to a new phenomenon: E-mail flames.

HTML and the World Wide Web. Born in 1991, thanks to Tim Berners-Lee, HTML and the Web finally brought two important concepts to a broad audience, hyperlinking and offering multiple documents and data types in a contextually relevant way.

The browser. Great as the Web is, we need a way to view it and navigate through it. Mosaic, which eventually became Netscape, set the Internet on fire in the mid-1990s by providing a window on the virtual world.

Graphic Interchange Format. Although there are many competing formats for sharing images on the Net, GIF is the one that took off and changed the way we think of the Web. Images within a Web page happen because GIF was available.

Internet servers and client-server architectures. As the world moved away from centralized mainframes, the Net proved to be a great resource for shared applications and files.

It's now common for users to interact with many applications right through a Web browser.

Java. This Sun Microsystems Corp. programming language is the great equalizer. All computers are supposed to react to it the same way, and the reason many applications can be displayed within Web browsers is because Java provides the interface. In reality, it doesn't always work like it should, but it was a great leap forward.

Extensible Markup Language. XML is as important a leap forward for general computing as the Net itself. This language isn't just a data structure; it has the potential to change our view of where data resides and how it is updated. Databases can feed documents. Documents can be used to automatically update databases.

Anything that can be tagged as XML data potentially can serve as a data field that can be used any way you like.

What's on the horizon? The government needs to make better use of XML to share data among agencies. This is especially important for security matters. The government needs its own XML tag set and uniform data sharing structure. The Net's taken us this far; it can take us farther.

Shawn P. McCarthy designs products for a Web search engine provider. E-mail him at smccarthy@lycos-inc.com.

About the Author

Shawn McCarthy, a former writer for GCN, is senior analyst and program manager for government IT opportunities at IDC.

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