Internet

Internet

Today the word “Internet” have become part of everyone’s everyday vocabulary. So it is understandable that many people, with grounds or without, claim to have had a role in their development. I firmly claim to have had no role in the development of either. At the time I started MPEG, and for many years afterwards, I had limited knowledge of what was happening in the environment that we loosely call “internet ” even though for many years I had been a good user of some of their products, namely File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and Simple Mail Transport Protocol (SMTP, aka electronic mail). 

So a reader could very well ask why this page should even appear in the Riding the Media Bits series. One answer is that the internet is an interesting and paradigmatic success story there is much to learn from. It is a good example of how outstanding results can be produced when – as it happened for the internet – Public Authorities invest in R&D targeted for the appropriate time frame, with measurable concrete benefits for the funding authority, and the funding measures are complemented by proper links between industry and the environment carrying out the research. 

The internet project is also an example of the complete life cycle of a research program: it started from technological roots and created an industry capable of producing the pieces of infrastructure needed by the project; then it actually deployed the network; a broad community of users had its hands in the network and continued the collaborative development of the specifications and at the same time field tested them. The growing size of the infrastructure being deployed required operation and management and a form of “standardisation” (the people involved in the internet venture may not like this term, but they would if they know my definition of standard), the latter also taking care of the constant evolution of the technology. Lastly, the project is remarkable because it yielded an effective transition from R&D into a commercially exploitable venture that has provided considerable benefits to the country that initiated and, for all practical purposes, managed so far its operation.

The second answer is that, with a hindsight and without hiding the differences, some superficial, some more deep-rooted, it turns out that there are striking similarities between many of the ideas that have guided the developments of the internet and MPEG. The third, and quite relevant, answer is that the internet is going to play an increasingly important role as a communication infrastructure and the interactions with MPEG, started in the 1990s, are continuing and there is no end in sight. 

The following is a brief account of the history of the internet and of the World Wide Web assembled from publicly available information. I have tried to filter out the inevitable lore that has sprouted from a venture of such an impact on people’s imagination, and I apologise for any error that knowledgeable readers may find in this page. This may have been caused either by the inaccuracy of my sources or my misreading of them or my excessive filtering or by all the three causes together. 

Here is an approximately sequential list of events

1957 ARPA The Advanced Research Projects Agency, an agency of the Department of Defence (DoD), with the purpose of establishing a US lead in science and technology applicable to the military, is established after the US government discovers that the USSR has launched their man-made Sputnik satellite around the Earth leaving the US behind in the race to space. ARPA research projects cover electronic computing and some of the first projects were about war game scenarios, timesharing and computer languages. Computer graphics, another project area, spurred the progress made in the 3DG domain reported before.
2nd half of 1960s IMP The idea of linking computers via the network takes shape. Basic technologies are: a protocol for computer-to-computer communication and the intelligence for other computers – “hosts” – to route data packets using a packet switching technique. Interface Message Processor was the name given to these special hosts making up the “ARPANET” computer network
1969 The first IMPs are installed in at four universities across the USA and more added in 1970. They are linked by “high speed” lines of 56 kbit/s to the site of the manufacturer Bolt, Beranek and Newman (BBN). The typical use of the network was remote login (Telnet), i.e. the use of computing resources via remote terminals
1970 NCP (December) Network Control Protocol, the first ARPANET Host-to-Host protocol is completed making it possible to develop application protocols on top of it, e.g. FTP and electronic mail following soon after. Electronic mail included such functionalities as listing, selecting, reading, filing, forwarding, and responding to messages. The NCP relied on the ARPANET to provide end-to-end flow control, the set of services that included packet reordering and lost packet recovery. These functions were not provided by other networks, such as SATNET (satellite networking) and packet radio.
1971 A new IMP is developed that can hold up to 63 terminals simultaneously connected, overcoming the original limitation of a maximum of four terminals at a time.
TCP Work starts to develop the Transmission-Control Protocol to connect different network
1977 Interconnection is demonstrated by moving data between ARPANET, SATNET and the packet radio network: data is sent from San Francisco to London and back to California travelling 150,000 km without losing a bit. The name Internet comes from the idea of a protocol capable of overcoming barriers between different networks.
1978 TCP is split into two separate functions: 1) TCP proper performing the function of breaking up the datagrams and reassembling them at the destination, executing flow control and recovering from lost packets, 2) IP performing the addressing and forwarding of individual packets. This functionality split, an obvious one after the rationalisation made by OSI, was necessary because computer-to-computer communication required flow control and packet-loss recovery, while in real-time communication, e.g. in human-to-human voice communication, a packet loss is preferable to waiting possibly for a long time for the desired packet to arrive.
1979 ICCB ARPA established the Internet Configuration Control Board
The requirements of the two communication forms that utilise the same packet-based data communication technology signal another difference:     Computer-oriented data communication provides errorless transmissions, no matter how long it may take, because in general computers do not know how to deal with errors, but human-oriented communication is fast but does not guarantee errorless transmission, because humans hate to wait but have some capability of making up for missing or damaged information. Indeed, one of the major differentiating factors between different MPEG-2 decoders is the different ability to minimise the visual and audio effects by recovering transmission errors.
1983 (1st of January) ARPANET adopts the new protocol. This date can be taken to be the official birth date of the Internet.
IAB ICCB is replaced by the Internet Activities Board. Under the IAB several Task Forces are created, in particular the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) manages the technical evolution of the Internet. Later, WGs were combined into Areas under the responsibility of Area Directors. The Internet Engineering Steering Group (IESG) is composed of the Area Directors. Today some 70 WGs are active in the IETF.
1984 DNS The Domain Name System is developed with the goal of translating the domain name expressed in characters, e.g. chiariglione.org, into an IP number. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) oversees the distribution of unique numeric IP addresses and domain names and is responsible for managing and coordinating the DNS to ensure the correct translation of a name into its IP address, also called “universal resolvability”. The DNS is based on 13 special computers distributed around the world, called root servers, coordinated by ICANN. These contain the same information, so that it is possible to spread the workload and back each other up. The root servers contain the IP addresses of all the Top Level Domain (TLD) registries – i.e. the global registries such as .com, .org, etc. and the 244 country-specific registries such as .it (Italy), .br (Brazil), etc. In addition to these, there are thousands of computers – called Domain Name Resolvers (DNR) – that constantly download and copy the information contained in the root servers
1985 The National Science Foundation (NSF) launches a program to establish Internet access across the USA. The backbone was called NSFNET and was open to all educational facilities, academic researchers, government agencies, and international research organizations (CSELT was one of them). As early as 1974 Telenet, a commercial version of ARPANET, had already opened and in 1990 world.std.com became the first commercial provider of Internet dial-up access. Around 1993, Network Solutions took over the job of registering .com domain names.
1991 The Internet Societyias established under the auspices of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI) of Bob Kahn and the leadership of Vinton Cerf, both major contributors to the early development of the Internet
1992 IAB The Internet Activities Board becomes the Internet Architecture Board operating under the auspices of the Internet Society
1989 DARPA (the new name that ARPA took when it got a “Defense” at the beginning) pulls the plug on the 22-year old network.

ARPANET and then the Internet set up a huge infrastructure based on sophisticated technologies. Free and open access to the basic documents, especially the specifications of the protocols, was a basic feature of the process. Since the beginnings of the Internet were rooted in the university and research community, the academic tradition of open publication of ideas and results helped make them widely accessible. That was still too slow for a dynamic exchange of ideas and a great innovation was introduced in 1969 with the establishment of the Request for Comments (RFC) series of notes, memos intended to be an informal and fast way to share ideas with other researchers. The first RFCs were printed on paper and distributed via snail mail, but when FTP came into use, RFCs were made available for online access via FTP and so enabled a rapid cross-fertilisation: ideas in one RFC triggered more RFCs building on an old RFC. When consensus was achieved, a specification document would be prepared and then used for implementations. 

When DARPA set the internet free, Danny Cohen, another Internet pioneer, said in a speech: 

“In the beginning ARPA created the ARPAnet.
“And the ARPAnet was without form and void.
“And darkness was upon the deep.
“And the spirit of ARPA moved upon the face of the network and ARPA said, ‘Let there be a protocol,’ and there was a protocol. And ARPA saw that it was good.
“And ARPA said, ‘Let there be more protocols,’ and it was so. And ARPA saw that it was good.
“And ARPA said, ‘Let there be more networks,’ and it was so.”
 

I cannot help but add comments to this speech. The part: 

And ARPA said, ‘Let there be more protocols,’ and it was so. And ARPA saw that it was good

would become in MPEG: 

And MPEG said, ‘Let there be more protocols, for new functionalities, and it was so. And MPEG saw that it was good. 

Maybe Danny Cohen meant to say that, but I would not swear he did and the answer can be yes or no depending on some subtleties. Indeed, the practice of the Internet world is one of giving “citizen rights”, i.e. sort of “standard status”, to any new idea that passes peer review. This is an implementation of a Darwinian process applied to ideas, but the survival of an idea depends on people implementing it and using it. Isn’t this great?

Depending on the goal one wants to achieve, this may be a good or a bad idea. If continuous progress, such as in an academic environment, is the goal, it is a good idea because one embeds the seeds of evolution in the system. New ideas improve the old ones and the system becomes better and better. If the seamless use of the infrastructure by the masses is the goal, it is a bad idea because users interested in a service are forced to become experimenters and struggle continuously with instability and disruption in communication. This attitude of the internet world is a direct consequence of the original closed environment of experts building the foundations of the internet carrying out experiments as a day-by-day job. It is not necessarily ideal when there are billions of users who want the system up and running for their own needs and they could not care less about the technicalities of the system or of another technical improvement, unless it is, but only possibly, a major one. 

Instead, the MPEG approach is one of “managed evolution”. Standards are created to solve a communication need using the state of technology at a given time. When progress of technology provides a meaningful quantum step, as assessed by MPEG participants carrying the business needs of their companies, and therefore without affecting the existing millions of users, a new standard is produced and, if necessary, a migration path from the old to the new standard is created.

Continuing my comments on this speech, I would add that, about networks, MPEG has no opinion. As much as there are many roads, rails etc., it is fine if there are many networks. I would even go one step further and say that there could be many transport protocols each designed for a particular goal. But I do not know how many would follow me down this path.

The success of the Internet brought a wind of change in the sleeping telecom and old IT worlds. The hype of computer and telecommunication convergence of the early 1980s had prompted the launch of the ambitious OSI project with strong official support on the part of telecommunication operators, major computer vendors and even governments. By the time the use of the Internet and of the WWW was expanding like wildfire, the OSI project had already been ongoing for 15 years, but the actual product implementation and deployment was still lacking. When products existed, they were available only on large computer installations, while the Internet protocol suite was available on most PCs. 

In a matter of months the already dwindling support for OSI collapsed. In retrospect, it is clear that the idea to develop a standard allowing a computer of any make (and in the early 1980s there were tens and tens of computers of different makes) to connect to any kind of network, talk to a computer of any make, execute applications on the other computer, etc., no matter how fascinating  and intellectually challenging it was, had very little prospect of success, particularly because this would have forced the opening up of proprietary systems, something that IT vendors had no intention of doing. 

A similar fate, although not as dramatic to the public at large because embedded in the low layers of the network but equally, if not more, disruptive to the executives involved, was awaiting the other major telco standardisation project, ATM. Standardisation had begun in the mid-1980s and had produced several ITU-T recommendations, but in the early 1990s industry was still not making products. Sun Microsystems took the lead and promoted the establishment of a new body called ATM Forum. This had the advantage of having a much wider industry representation and was driven by a much more pragmatic approach to standardisation: facilitating development of standards-based products, not writing specs to satisfy egos. The ATM Forum used to boast that their first specification was developed in just 4 months without any new technical work, just by removing many of the options from existing ITU-T recommendations. Once the option-heavy ITU-T documents that the manufacturing industry, without the backing of fat orders from the telcos, had not dared to implement, became the slim ATM Forum specifications, ATM products became commercially available at the initiative of manufacturers, at interesting prices and in a matter of months. 

This was not enough to save ATM, though. The prices and volumes that the booming internet infrastructure could command were such that costly ATM equipment could never be competitive. This was one of the causes for the eventual discontinuation of telcos plans to deploy VoD services, which were designed to be based on ATM. Today ATM is confined to a low layer on top of which IP is used with current plans to remove that layer as fast as practically and economically feasible. 

As for all things allowed to have a life of their own, the internet boom has created other problems for the telecommunication equipment manufacturing industry, but that is another story.

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