A few weeks ago I had an interesting discussion with Bob Kahn. Along with Vint Cerf, Bob is recognized as one the key fathers of the Internet, for which they both received the 1997 National Medal of Technology and a number of other top prizes. The occasion was a board meeting of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI), a not-for-profit organization that promotes research in the public interest which Bob founded in 1986 and continues to lead. Earlier this year, I joined CNRI’s Board of Directors.
We were talking about the continuing evolution of the Internet, something Bob is uniquely qualified to discuss. Beyond his role as co-inventor of its key protocols, Bob has played a leading role in shepherding the Internet from its modest beginnings over forty years ago to its well recognized position as the engine of the digital revolution.
What do we mean by the Internet? The most concrete answer is that the Internet is the global system of interconnected computer networks based on the TCP/IP protocols co-developed by Cerf and Kahn. But, beyond the central role that TCP/IP has played, I believe that the success of the Internet is predicated on a few key architectural principles: open, simple and distributed.
First, the Internet is open, in the public domain, and with its protocols available to everyone including a number of open source implementations. This truly differentiated the Internet from competing proprietary architectures like IBM’s Systems Network Architecture (SNA) and Digital’s DECnet, which worked quite well within a company where everybody used the same network, but made it cumbersome to interoperate across companies with networks from different vendors.
The second principle refers to the simplicity of the basic Internet protocols, which have focused primarily on the functions necessary for transmitting and routing traffic based on a small set of open standards. Having a more limited functionality and simpler protocols, - unlike more complex and comprehensive architectures like the seven layer OSI model, - was a key factor in the development of the original architecture, as well as its continuing evolution and governance.
Finally, the Internet is based on a distributed computing model, where the various network nodes interact with each other to achieve a common goal. There is no central computer controlling and managing the whole network. In fact, any intelligence beyond that needed for transmitting and routing traffic is pushed to the end nodes at the edge of the network, where different vendors can compete with their various networking offerings as long as they then adhere to the common Internet protocols when the time comes for sending and receiving messages.
These architectural principles have enabled the Internet to accomodate technology advances through the years, and to scale from the initial four node ARPANET in 1969 to a size beyond the wildest imagination of its original architects. They have made it possible to Internet-enable systems from any vendor, architecture and size, - from the smallest mobile devices and sensors to massively parallel supercomputers and cloud platforms. And, they have led to many new kinds of Internet-based applications and services.
Similar such principles have been followed by the key services supported by the Internet, such as e-mail and the Web. The use of e-mail predates the Internet. A number of vendors brought to market proprietary e-mail systems that made it easy to communicate within a company, but quite a bit more difficult to reach out beyond the company's boundaries, especially to different proprietary e-mail systems. Then in the 1980s a small set of Internet e-mail protocols were adopted, - e.g., SMTP, MIME, POP, IMAP, - as well as a common format for e-mail addresses, - username@domain. These enabled people to communicate with anyone, on any system from any vendor as long the various systems used the common Internet e-mail standards. e-mail usage by institutions and individuals took off.
In the same way, the success of the World Wide Web is based on a simple set of standards, - URLs, HTML, HTTP, - developed by Tim Berners-Lee at CERN in the early 1990s, and the easy-to-use, graphical Mosaic web browser developed by Marc Andreessen shortly afterwards at the University of Illinois.
These Internet principles, - open, simple, distributed, - have become much more than a technical, architectural approach. They actually have come to reflect the very culture of the Internet, a culture that puts a premium on collaborative innovation. Not surprisingly given its origins, the Internet culture of collaboration has long been the norm in the world of scientific research. But, it has not been the culture one generally associates with the business world. However, since its market success in the 1990s, the Internet has been having a truly transformative impact on the culture of business. Let me illustrate what I mean with my personal experiences at IBM.
IBM used to be the very model of an inward-looking, centrally organized company that pretty much built everything by itself based on proprietary technologies. This model worked well in the early days of the computer industry, but by the late 1980s it had become fatally outmoded and almost caused the demise of the company. Following IBM’s near-death experience in the early 1990s, the company’s embrace of the Internet was the key catalyst that enabled it to transform its culture and once more become a leader in the IT industry. In his excellent book “Who Says Elephants Can't Dance?”, then Chairman and CEO Lou Gerstner explained the role that IBM’s Internet-based e-business strategy played in the company’s cultural transformation:
“I decided to declare e-business as our moon-shot, our galvanizing mission, an equivalent of the System/360 for a new era. We infused it into everything. It provided a powerful context for all of our businesses. It gave us both a marketplace-based mission and a new ground for our own behaviors and operating practices – in other words, culture. Most important, it was outward-facing. We were no longer focused on turning ourselves around. We were focused on setting the industry agenda again.”
Embracing the Internet, its open standards and overall outside-in approach turned out to be much more than a technology for IBM. It was a culture almost diametrically opposite to its previous one. It truly made IBM much more open in general, embracing new technology ideas from external communities, e.g., Linux, Apache, SOA, and more willing to work closely with other vendors, partners and customers. It paved the way for a much more collaborative approach to innovation. In short, embracing the Internet turned IBM, as it has a number of other companies, into an open, globally integrated enterprise, far more ready for business in the 21st century than ever before.
The evolution continues. In the past decade, advances in Internet-based social media platforms have significantly enhanced the ability of individuals, organizations and communities to work together and collaborate with each other. Then over the past five years or so, we have been in transition from the connected world of PCs, browsers and classic data centers to the hyperconnected world of smart mobile devices and cloud computing. In fact, cloud computing is emerging as the Internet-based computing model necessary to support the huge number of people now connecting with their mobile devices, as well as the much larger number of sensors embedded in the physical world that we have started to call the Internet of Things.
We are now able to tackle far more complex business and societal problems than ever before. In particular, we are learning to address sociotechnical systems problems, which combine our powerful, ubiquitous digital technologies with the people and organizations they are transforming, such as smart cities, integrated healthcare systems, and digital money ecosystems. Not only do such systems have to deal with the complexities associated with large scale hardware and software infrastructures, but with the even more complex issues involved in human and organizational behaviors.
We can be pretty certain that both the Internet architectural principles and its culture of collaboration will continue to play a central role in our ability to address ever more complex and important problems well into the future.