EDITOR'S DESK—Commentary

Wyatt Kash | After nearly 40 years, Internet's potential to foster info networks remains high

For digital natives who grew up with the Internet, the work done 40 years ago at the Advanced Research Projects Agency that led to the Internet probably seems like an obscure footnote to history.

Many of us still remember 1969 as a time when social networking meant trekking to Woodstock and the technologies that allowed the world to watch man’s first steps on the moon were something to marvel at.

But it was also when Larry Roberts, an ARPA scientist and program manager working under director Charles Herzeld and computer science chief, Robert Taylor, awarded Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN) the job of building the first interface message processors — the hardware needed to send and receive packets of information from one computer to another.

The notion of breaking data into packets and routing them to a destination along different paths had been gaining momentum as a wartime strategy, thanks to the work of Paul Baran, an electrical engineer at Rand, and Leonard Kleinrock, a computer science professor at UCLA, who helped create the earliest computer networks in the 1960s.

It was Sept. 2, 1969, when BBN’s prototype was connected to a UCLA host machine, and as Kleinrock recalls it, the “Internet took its first breath.” Weeks later, on Oct. 29, UCLA’s host spoke for the first time with a second host located 400 miles north at Stanford Research Institute.

But Robert Kahn, then at BBN, realized that the new connectivity was relatively useless without instructions to interface the data with each computer’s operating systems and applications. So Kahn and a Kleinrock colleague, Vint Cerf, developed what became the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol — the linking structures that paved the way for computers to interconnect.

Since then, of course, many others have added substantially to the evolution of the Internet we take for granted today.

What’s intriguing, as Kahn looks back, is contemplating how the Internet might have evolved had it been designed to manage, rather than move, information. He shares that vision in this issue’s GCN Interview — along with his notion for how the Digital Object Architecture could still play a role in making information more secure.

Many will contend that people lack the discipline to make the Digital Object Architecture practical — or that search engines provide a simpler and virtually free way to locate files on the Internet.

Yet, when it comes to managing sensitive information, such as medical data within a file, securely via the Internet, Kahn’s model still holds remarkable promise after all these years.

About the Author

Wyatt Kash served as chief editor of GCN (October 2004 to August 2010) and also of Defense Systems (January 2009 to August 2010). He currently serves as Content Director and Editor at Large of 1105 Media.

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