40 Years Later, Internet’s Co-Creator Still Pushing

Lawrence Roberts
Internet pioneer Lawrence Roberts
Source: Anagran

UCLA will be hosting today in honor of the 40th anniversary of the Internet, but one of its key creators won’t be there.

Lawrence Roberts said he’d love to attend, as he has with similar events — but he admits that he’s too busy to take a break from his new company and the work he continues to do to improve the Internet.

That’s right. Forty years later, he’s still at it.

On Oct. 29, 1969, two distant ARPANET computers exchanged a message for the first time, laying the groundwork for what we today call the Internet.

Today, Roberts’ company, Anagran is focused on improving network communication, specifically bandwidth management. It’s not far at all from the pioneering work he did in the late 1960s alongside colleagues Leonard Kleinrock, Robert Kahn and Vinton Cerf in developing the government-funded ARPANET, the world’s first major computer packet network.

Roberts said that back then, he could see the inevitable development of e-mail and expected the Internet could be used for voice traffic.

“But I estimated it would take twenty years because the telephone system is slow to change,” he said. “I never guessed that early we’d have TV broadcasts, because we had much lower capacity back then.”

In a wide-ranging interview with InternetNews.com, Roberts discussed changes he wished had been made back at the start of the Internet and where he sees things headed.

“Looking back, I wished we had done more about security earlier,” he said. “At first, it was about finding out what we could do, and bad things was one of them. We should have paid more attention — the government should have. Now security is a huge problem.”

Roberts thinks government needs to do the lion’s share of the work — or at least the funding — in security because there isn’t enough incentive for commercial developers without such support. When it comes to technology purchasing, he feels most companies place a higher priority on features and systems that help them with sales or improve their bottom line, while investing in security is more of a luxury.

He said it’s in the government’s best interest, from an economic and military perspective, to keep the Internet secure, and he expects continued investment in partnership with commercial enterprises.

“One of things I’m most concerned about is that most security solutions are aimed at the end computer instead of the network, and we’re not winning the battle — we’re losing,” Roberts said. “It’s really a hopeless approach when you look at the amount of violations that keep rising.”

Roberts said network management solutions from his company and others are a better approach to security and heading off things like DDoS attacks that in recent years have crippled Web sites large and small.

“We can do a tremendous amount in the network,” he said. “Authentication will help a lot in terms of knowing who is calling and either not accepting that traffic or at least making an arrest after the fact. ”

“Today, it’s impossible because no one is keeping track. You have these hackers and criminals creating bots, infecting millions of computers.”

Fairness, P2P and Net neutrality

Issues of trust and authentication aren’t the only places where Roberts sees the Internet needing room for improvement. There’s also issues of bandwidth management that have serious implications for one of the most controversial topics facing the Internet today: network neutrality.

Next page: Net neutrality and the future of the Internet

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Companies including his own, Anagran, have developed solutions for making Internet bandwidth flow more equally — avoiding the network hang-ups that occur when, say, a minority of users or certain applications like P2P file-sharing hog a disproportionate amount of bandwidth.

At the IEEE, the new 100 gigabit Ethernet (GbE) standard that is currently being developed is one such effort to increase available bandwidth for all.

But there are other approaches. Roberts said that much of the controversy over Net neutrality, with ISPs banning certain apps or activities, could be blunted if ISPs implemented “fairness” in bandwidth: ensuring that each user receives exactly the same amount of network bandwidth.

While this means “everyone on the network slows down a little,” Roberts said, it allows the ISP to better allocate the network and bandwidth distribution more fairly. As a result, use of P2P applications will cease sucking up an unfairly large chunk of everyone’s capacity. Instead, their users will be limited to only their share of the network.

“Look at the bandwidth overload companies like Comcast have faced over P2P,” he said. “If the ISPs do this, the whole problem of P2P hogging bandwidth goes away.”

“It would also help wireless access on devices like the iPhone,” he said, a nod to AT&T’s recent struggles to cope with booming mobile data activity on its network attributable in large part to the popular Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) smartphone.

The future of the Internet

When Roberts considers what’s to come for the Internet in the next five to ten years, he said he hopes the fairness concept on networks will be farther along.

“I really believe we have to have much better quality of service and fairness,” he said.

In addition to concerns about how to fairly manage network bandwidth — and whether ISPs should be allowed to do so at all — recent years have also seen an upswing in dire predictions of full-on Internet disruptions or outages due to data overload.

But Roberts thinks the distributed nature of the Internet makes those concerns overblown.

“The network doesn’t break — it slows down. For some people, that may mean they can’t do the job they’d like to, like telemedicine. You can’t be waiting for the Internet when you’re trying to figure out where to move the scalpel or make a cut during an operation.”

Granted, the Internet is going to continue seeing more and more traffic. But its underlying technology will also be improving.

“You’re going to see faster performance every year, that’s just part of Moore’s Law,” he said, noting advances in chip technology means faster network equipment.

Likewise, he expects big strides in reliability in services like VoIP and video without serious deviations from the Internet’s reliance on TCP/IP .

“We’ve proven we can fix these latency issues,” he said. “We won’t require changes in the protocol — TCP will stay indefinitely.”

UCLA’s 40th anniversary event will be Web cast later today.

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