Those Who Set the Standard

Early in my career in IT, and even prior to that when I was still in high school, I found myself deeply curious about the history of the Internet. This lead me down a path of research and wonder as I discovered not just how the Internet came about but the key people and organisations responsible for what we take for granted everyday.

I will avoid rehashing the entire of history of how the ‘Internet’ came about – there are great sources such as this which go into sufficient detail, but the modern age of the Internet started with ARPANET transitioning to TCP/IP, which recently celebrated its thirtieth anniversary January 1st. This transition was planned and documented in a system of collaborative memoranda called “Request for Comments”, or RFCs. In this instance, RFC801 documented the this particular transition plan.

RFC801 was written by Jon Postel. Most people who have no idea who Jon Postel is, but he was incredibly important in both the architecture of the modern Internet, as well as its ongoing operation and governance until his death in 1998. He also created Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP), RFC788, which most E-Mail systems use to send email. His obituary was written by Vint Cerf and was published as part of RFC2468.

Vinton (Vint) Cerf is presently better known for his role as Chief Internet Evangelist at Google, however is more importantly (with Bob Kahn), the co-creator of Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) and Internet Protocol (IP) suite in 1973 which is the foundation of the Internet as it exists today. Vint now looks to the future, is working with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to develop an interstellar Internet.

This of course only scratches the surface. You can extend this further and look at Paul Mockrapetris with the Domain Name System (DNS) in 1983, and of course Tim Berners-Lee who in 1989 created (with others) Hypertext Markup Language (HTML) as well as Hypertext Transfer Protocol (HTTP), which became what we know as the World Wide Web today.

There are also the organisations which govern many of the Internet standards and resources which are used globally:

Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN): setup in 1998, this private organisation is responsible for IPv4 and IPv6 address management, as well as governance of the top-level domain space (e.g. .com, .net, .info), and the operation of DNS root zone and root servers.

Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA): Operated by ICANN, IANA is the interface to vendors, Internet Service Providers and enterprises for the allocation of IP addressing space, Autonomous System Numbers (used primarily for BGP routing), official TCP & UDP port numbers (usually ports 0-1023), time zones, and other Internet-associated symbols and numbers.

Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF): An open standards organisation, the IETF develop and/or maintain Internet standards such as TCP/IP, SMTP, MPLS. Most RFCs are published by IETF members, and almost all IETF standards are published as RFCs.

World Wide Web Consortium (W3C): Founded by Tim Berners-Lee, this consortium comprising of member organisations and full-time W3C staff develop and maintain World Wide Web standards.

Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE): Perhaps the most obscure to the uninitiated but perhaps the most important, in brief the IEEE develop and maintain standards around communications, and light and power systems. Anything from the power cord with your kettle, to ethernet & fibre cabling to WiFi specifications are vetted and approved by the IEEE. (Maybe they can one day convince the world to use one type of power plug and one universal voltage!) IEEE produces 30% of the world’s literature in the electrical and electronics engineering and computer science fields.

I found all of this information incredible to learn as a teenager and still love exploring these organisation’s websites now. I had a summer intern work for me a few years ago and I made him go and read up on several RFCs to do with networking, which afterwards he told me was a worthwhile exercise.

You may not hear names Cerf, Kahn, Mockrapetris, Postel and Berners-Lee the same you do with Edison, Tesla, Bell and Da Vinci, but the men and women who have developed the standards on which we all rely on should be lauded for their commitment, ingenuity and imagination. After all, in today’s disposable and quick-to-obsolete world, it’s hard to imagine that the foundation of the Internet still runs reliably on a 30 year old standard.

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