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Internet pioneers gather in Marina del Rey to honor USC's Information Sciences Institute

March 26, 2010 | 12:29 pm

Last week a distinguished crowd of several dozen of the scientists and researchers who, for lack of a better term, invented the Internet, gathered in a large, squat building overlooking Marina del Ray.

The Internet pioneers and leaders of an array of present-day organizations dedicated to building a better, faster, more open Internet, were in a meeting room at the Information Sciences Institute, the venerated computer research unit of USC's Viterbi School of Engineering. ISI has been home to many of the Internet's founding innovations, including the basic naming system that divided the net into .com, .org, .gov and other original domains.

Indeed, it was ISI itself that was being honored at this event. The institute's 32-year tenure as the steward of the Internet's most important document series -- the Requests for Comment -- was drawing to a close, and Internet royalty from across the country was there to celebrate the more than 5,000 technical notes, standards, and discussions of computer networking.

In the audience were Vinton G. Cerf and Robert Kahn, two researchers who developed the basic communications models for the early internet while it was still a military-funded project. Also there were ISI's Executive Director Herbert Schorr, Stephen Crocker, the author of the first-ever RFC, and C.L. Max Nikias, the provost and future president of USC.

Though the RFCs themselves can be dry and hyper-technical, they have come to be seen as a kind of living history of the Internet. The rules and architectures enshrined in the RFCs include the first specifications for e-mail, file-sharing and the efficient transmission of data across networks. Those early rules and many others have been adopted by networking engineers and applications developers around the world to build the open, global Internet we have today.

And much of that work was done not just in Southern California, but in that building on Admiralty Way, overlooking the marina. 

"Throughout the history of the Internet, when there were things to be done, individuals have stepped forward to do the work," said Lynn St. Amour, the president and chief executive of the Internet Society, who recognized the leadership role that ISI had taken in the development of the Internet.

The RFC Series was first edited by the late Jon Postel, who helped the series grow and thrive over 28 years. When he passed away in 1998, the editorship was taken over by Robert Braden, another Internet pioneer, who ran the series until this year.

"There comes a time when we need to get back to our core business, which is research," Braden said to the crowd in his valedictory. "The IETF [who runs the series] decided they needed to stop employing a bunch of amateurs in a weird building in Marina Del Rey, and had to bring in some professionals."

Braden was given a commemorative crystal bowl, and several audience members spoke of the role ISI had played in the development of the Internet. One of those was Kahn, who told the following story:

ISI in the early days was the first place to create a real application of networking. It was funded by DARPA -- which was a defense and research community. They were the first ones to say, let's see if we can find a military problem and actually work on it. So they created something called the Military Message Experiment. 

There was a committee in congress ... that had been out to Hawaii and discovered that there were 96 communications on the island of Oahu. This was an island you can drive from one end to the other in less than two hours. 96 seemed like too many, so they told the secretary of Defense to get rid of some of them.

It turned out that the military was reluctant to do that because they didn't want to lose any people. 

So ISI took a look at some inputs from DARPA, which funded the activity. Why don't we put some time-sharing capabilities on the island and link all of those 96 centers so they didn't have to have all those people out there?

So that's what they did -- they demonstrated the utility of it and everyone thought it was great. 

And when it was all done and there was a whole plan to transition it, the Navy wouldn't take it on, and it was folded.

ISI really demonstrated to the military that there were real applications to the technology.

-- David Sarno

Photo: Internet pioneers Robert Kahn, Robert Braden, and Vinton G. Cerf gather at USC's Information Sciences Institute to celebrate its contribution to the development of the Internet. Credit: Chuck Espinoza