Origins of the Internet

The concept of the Internet began with the simple desire of the U.S. government's military forces and research staff to make the transmission of data more efficient and disaster-proof. Research data lacked almost any significant level of mobility, requiring physical transportation from one place to another by means of punch cards or, at best, computer tapes. This problem also affected military computer data, making communications vulnerable to attack or theft. When the Soviet Union launched Sputnik in 1957, the government decided that it needed to take action to protect its communication network from these potentially catastrophic issues. President Dwight Eisenhower created the Advanced Research Projects Agency (ARPA) in 1958 in response to Sputnik, and ARPA hired J.C.R. Licklider as its director of information technology in 1962. Licklider wrote of his ideas for a "Galactic Network," a globally connected system of computers where anyone could access data or programs instantly. His ideas would, through technological innovations and research, culminate in the creation of ARPANET in 1969 and its eventual successor, the Internet.

The Initial Internet

One of the most basic technologies underlying the Internet is the concept of packet-switching, which was first proposed by Donald Davies of the National Physical Laboratory in the U.K. and Leonard Kleinrock at MIT. It involves breaking up a single message, or unit of digital information, into smaller units called packets and then sending them along routes to their destination. This eliminates the "single point of failure" problem where the entire message is lost if one machine fails. Another type of technology that was fundamental to the Internet was the concept of a network based on an open architecture system. This meant that a series of heterogenous networks could be linked together in a logical network, a "network of networks" that did not need to know the traits of each individual network. In 1974, Dr. Robert E. Kahn and Vincent G. Cerf published a paper that defined the Transmission Control Program (TCP) to address the need for an open architecture logical network. This later became known as the Transmission Control Protocol and then the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), which is now the core technology of the Internet.

Concepts Proving the Ideas

As with any new technology, the networking concepts that created the Internet needed to undergo a series of real-life tests to see if they were even feasible. One of the concerns about one of the core facets of the Internet, the TCP protocol, was that smaller computers could not use it due to the size and complexity of the programs that implemented it. Researchers cleared this hurdle when they enabled personal workstations and smaller computers to use TCP. Another hurdle that appeared was the need to assign human-readable names to the growing number of interconnected networks. To solve this, in 1983, a computer scientist named Paul Mockapetris designed a system called the Domain Name System (DNS), which created a distributed database of network address numbers to be assigned to network names. The TCP protocol eventually won the contest of technological natural selection, replacing the competing transport layer protocol known as the Network Control Program, which ran on ARPANET. On January 1, 1983, ARPANET adopted TCP/IP as its sole core networking protocol, a day that is considered by many to be the official birthday of the Internet.

Transition to Widespread Infrastructure

The research carried out by ARPA resulted in a rapid growth of computer networks by the 1970s. At the same time, new networking protocols were arising to address new and increasingly popular activities on ARPANET and, later, the Internet. Ground-breaking technologies such as the Unix to Unix Copy Protocol (UUCP) were useful for newer and easier to use email systems as well as a distributed discussion system known as Usenet. At first, large, gated-community-style networks arose, such as the National Science Foundation's NSFNET, which was designed for colleges and institutions of higher education. NSFNET received millions of dollars in public funding and grew to become the most important major route for data across the interconnected networks. Because for-profit activity was generally discouraged on NSFNET as per its Acceptable Use Policy (AUP), other networks began to appear. These included Alternet, CERFNet, PSINet, and UUNET. The Commercial Internet Exchange (CIX) came into existence to facilitate the movement of commercial network traffic without violating NSFNET's AUP. Conflicts between these networks arose, prompting Congress to pass the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act of 1992, which empowered the NSF to allow commercial networks to connect to NSFNET. By this time, more than 6,000 computer networks were connected to NSFNET, a third of which were networks from other countries. The joining of commercial networks to NSFNET cleared the way for NSFNET to evolve into the modern, globally accessible Internet.

The Role of Documentation

The development of network-related technologies, from ARPANET to the modern Internet, depended upon not only a series of documents outlining the technology but also open access to these papers. The traditional system of publishing academic articles, however, was too inefficient to adapt to the rapidly changing nature of networking technology. To solve this problem, a UCLA researcher named Steven Crocker invented the concept of the Request for Comments (RFC). RFCs began as a series of draft documents, or memos, which were typed or written on paper and mailed around to different research groups in search of contributory comments. RFCs propose a new or improved networking-related technology and invite others to comment upon it. Technological and intellectual natural selection determined the fate of RFC documents, in that those ideas that were popular with enough users became a new standard. RFCs provide the documentation behind most, if not all, technology available on the Internet today. They are currently managed by the Internet Society and the Internet Engineering Task Force, two organizations that are responsible for setting standards for Internet-related technology.

Formation of the Broad Community

The growth of ARPANET and later the Internet created a need for coordination among the rapidly growing number of researchers involved in improving its related technology. The development of the research community involved not only the formation of task forces and groups but also reorganizations in response to the evolving nature of the Internet. Organizations that were influential in the evolution of ARPANET and the Internet include the Internet Engineering Task Force, led by co-founder Phillip Gross, and the Internet Configuration Control Board (ICCB), created by Vincent Cerf in 1979. The ICCB directed the development of standards related to the technology that the Internet was based upon, while the Internet Engineering Task Force managed the RFC technical documents that guided the evolution of the Internet. The ICCB eventually evolved into the Internet Advisory Board (IAB) in 1984 and the Internet Architecture Board in 1992. Another major group, the Internet Society, was founded in 1992 by Vincent Cerf and Robert E Kahn to ensure the openness, transparency, and democratic nature of the Internet. The World Wide Web Consortium, created in 1994 by World Wide Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee, guides the development of World Wide Web-related standards. These organizations have been influential in shaping the Internet research community as it exists today.

Commercialization of the Technology

A major barrier to the commercialization of the nascent Internet was the difficulty companies faced in implementing TCP/IP over their existing proprietary networks. The Department of Defense, via ARPA, required the use of TCP/IP on ARPANET without offering private contractors much help in implementing the protocol. To solve this problem, in 1988, a network pioneer named Dan Lynch founded InterOP, a workshop to help companies achieve interoperability between their different networks and network-related products. The cooperation between private companies and researchers gave rise to a variety of technologies that proved critical for the ongoing evolution of the Internet. One of these innovations was the Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP), which is now the dominant protocol for network management.

History of the Future

By the time the Federal Networking Council issued its resolution that defined the Internet on October 24, 1995, the Internet was well on its way to becoming the global and ubiquitous phenomenon that it is now. Private Internet service providers such as America Online and Prodigy were already connecting households around the world via Usenet and the World Wide Web, and people were even starting to play games online. Business on the Internet was also growing apace, with the concept of the business email list as well as other contact lists and groups taking off in popularity along with encryption, online stores, and advertisements. The Internet faces a number of new challenges as to how it will evolve in the future. For instance, there are not only intellectual interests but also economic interests, which may sometimes conflict. One potential conflict between intellectual and economic interests is how to resolve the problem of the "digital divide," in which some populations have better access to the Internet and technology than others. Another current problem facing the Internet is that it has grown to a point where the number of address spaces is running out due to an overpopulation of network-connected devices. The solution for this, IPv6, is still in the process of being implemented. IPv6 will be an important factor as the Internet evolves toward the Internet of Things (IoT), a concept in which all electronic devices, as well as automobiles, buildings, and appliances, are eventually connected to each other.

Added by Gary Taylor