The World Wide Web sprung from the Cold War - imagine
Imagine all computers talking quickly and easily to each other.
Imagine never filing or updating others' documents because they do it for you.
Imagine having all agency programs and policies at your desktop.
Imagine discovering all that is written about a topic and printing it out in minutes.
Science fiction? No--these incredible possibilities are real, thanks to the amazing
network of networks called the Internet. The Internet is to computers what the telephone
system is to people. But on the Internet every computer talks the same language--for now.
How did this remarkable network come into being? For most Internet users, its
development is a mystery. Yet it is vital that they understand its antecedents and the
crucial role its standards played in its unprecedented success.
Before the Internet, each computer manufacturer developed and marketed its own
telecommunications protocols. Many of these protocols had excellent features, but each
maker's network was an island unto itself.
Larger companies often used these incompatibilities to protect their market share.
Another vendor may have had a better technical solution, but customers couldn't move to it
without abandoning a substantial investment in their own supplier's protocols. Newer and
smaller companies yearned for standard protocols printto gain a foothold in the
Back in the late 1960s the Defense Department decided it needed a communications
network that could survive nuclear attack. Despite its considerable resources, even DOD
could not simultaneously replace all its computers with hardware and software from a
single vendor. Moreover, government procurement rules made it difficult to make big
acquisitions from a single vendor.
So DOD financed the development of telecommunications standards and a prototype network
to link the department's existing computers. The protocols had to be inexpensive, easy to
install, reliable and robust.
Sponsored by DOD's Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Arpanet was born. Arpanet
worked so well that DOD and the National Science Foundation decided to distribute the
Arpanet Internet Protocols with the free Unix software from the University of California
at Berkeley. As Berkeley Unix spread throughout the world, the Internet spread with it.
Reluctant to yield market share, computer and telecommunications manufacturers couldn't
agree whose commercial protocols were best. But they all found the Internet standards
inexpensive and easy to implement. However, even with the rapid growth of networking, the
average person found it hard to learn Unix and the Internet Protocols.
Tim Berners-Lee and his colleagues at CERN, the European high-energy particle
laboratory in Switzerland, saw the need for an easy way to capture the benefits of the
global Internet. People should be able to use the graphical interfaces of their personal
computers to point and click to any document or database on the Internet, they believed.
With financial support from NASA and NSF, developers at CERN and at the National Center
for Supercomputer Applications at the University of Illinois wrote the telecommunications
standards and public domain software that created the World Wide Web.
Web software comes in two parts: the client (or browser) and the server. The client
(such as Netscape or Mosaic) runs on your desktop computer. From there it talks to server
software running at a computer connected to the Internet anywhere on the earth.
Click your mouse on a highlighted line on your browser window and the server sends you
the requested documents or data. Written in the Internet's standard Hypertext Markup
Language, these documents provide information and HTML links to documents on any computer
on the Internet.
Your agency doesn't have to be on the Internet to benefit from this inexpensive but
powerful technology. Agencies can use this technology to get computers and applications to
talk to one another. After securing their computers and controlling entry with software
called firewalls, agencies use Internet protocols to connect their facilities together.
Thus, they can employ the Internet Protocol Suite and Web technology in the privacy of
their own networks. If your computer can talk to other computers around the world, why not
have it talk to the computer in the next office?
But don't imagine writing your own versions of IP or HTML. Agencies need to guard
against backsliding from standards-compliant systems into incompatible proprietary
implementations that are more costly in the long run.
Walter R. Houser, who has more than two decades of experience in federal information
management, is webmaster for a Cabinet agency. His own Web home page is at http://wow.cpug.org/user/houser/.