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How One University’s Networking 'Mistake' Sparked the U.S. Internet

August 8, 2016
University of Maryland, College Park

Thirty years ago, a visionary effort by Dr. Glenn Ricart to interconnect the computer networks of all the departments at the University of Maryland, College Park, wasn’t very well received.

It was the first time computer networks on a college campus had been “interconnected,” and while this may have sounded valuable in theory, the real-world application didn’t show as much benefit in practice as Dr. Ricart – the university’s academic chief information officer at the time – had hoped.

“It turns out that the philosophers didn’t really want to talk to the chemical engineers or the business school professors. And the business school professors didn’t want to talk to the philosophers or to the engineers. They wanted to talk to the business professors at other schools,” Dr. Ricart recalled.

This was an “ah-ha” moment for Dr. Ricart – one that set the stage for a series of events that would lead first to the slightly surreptitious networking of colleges and academic organizations across the U.S. (more on that later), and then to the addition of commercial institutions to that network.

Dr. Ricart will tell you these events were accidental or lucky. “Half of it is being in the right place at the right time,” he asserted. But this is only partly true. At every turn – at every obstacle or perceived misstep – Dr. Ricart seized the opportunity to adapt and adjust his vision.

“The focus of my work during the 1980s was interconnecting people and the technology they used,” he said. “We had a situation where the networks, at that time, were for individual purposes – an individual science, an individual organization – and they were not really connected together. You were connected to a specific network.”

“What I did was to create an open interconnect point where everyone could come and connect to us and, thus, to each other,” Dr. Ricart said, explaining his formation of the first Internet Exchange Point, or IXP. “It was really the first time there had been an open, anybody-could-come, interconnect point for the Internet.”

At the university, Dr. Ricart had been in charge of the campus mainframe. “I didn’t want a mainframe because mainframes were going extinct and smaller computers were being put into departments all across campus,” he said. “If I’m in charge of a dying mainframe, what I should I be doing?”

The solution was TCP/IP.

“My original vision for a campus computing infrastructure was a team of interconnected facilities that could each contribute their own strengths to the campus to the benefit of faculty, students and staff,” Dr. Ricart said. “That would require a campus network of a kind that didn't then exist – one that could interconnect all of the different brands and types of computing on campus.”

Then, in 1982, the Department of Defense made a decision that changed the playing field. “The DOD decided it would only buy computers capable of running TCP/IP,” Dr. Ricart said. “I seized on this.”

Dr. Ricart installed the necessary software and, aided by miles of telephone wiring, the University of Maryland, College Park, became the first college campus that was interconnected using TCP/IP – what we know today as the Internet protocols. “That was a real watershed,” he reflected.

But when Dr. Ricart realized that his interconnected campus wasn’t realizing its potential – and that the school’s professors really wanted to be able to collaborate with colleagues at other institutions – he knew his network plan had to evolve.

“We ended up starting what was called SURAnet – the Southeastern Universities Research Association Network,” Dr. Ricart said. “We persuaded universities in 13 other states to make the same 'mistake' I had made – connect their campuses with this TCP/IP protocol – but then to the other campuses via SURAnet. Then magic things began to happen.”

Supported by the National Science Foundation, SURAnet connected 18 universities in the southeastern U.S. at its start. “Suddenly, the physicists could talk to other physicists,” said Dr. Ricart. “Architects could talk to other architects.”

The campus networks were not the only unconnected networks. At that stage, in the late 1980s, a lot of separate, single-administered TCP/IP networks were not yet connected to one another, he explained.

“ARPAnet was administered by the Advanced Research Projects Agency,” Dr. Ricart said. “NSFnet was administered by the National Science Foundation. SURAnet was administered by SURA. But none of them were sending packets from one to another. In a few cases, an applications gateway was installed, but packets didn’t flow freely among them.”

Dr. Ricart sensed an opportunity. “I thought, connecting these networks to each other would be a big help,” he said. “They were already connected to their specific constituency at the University of Maryland, so I asked the other networks if we could officially connect them to each other. But each had been funded for only their own specific purpose. No one could give permission for packets from other networks to traverse theirs.”

He did it anyway. Quoting the late computer scientist and U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Grace Hopper, Dr. Ricart said, “Sometimes, it’s better to ask for forgiveness than permission.”

One by one, Dr. Ricart quietly contacted his colleagues. “I secretly told everybody, ‘You may notice that you’re connected to everybody else that’s connected to College Park, but I’m not officially notifying you.’”

It was an immediate success. “The people on the other networks were delighted. No one complained.” Dr. Ricart remembered. “College Park, Maryland, became the birthplace of the ‘Inter’ part of the Internet.”

Research and commercial institutions from around globe soon wanted to join SURAnet. IBM Research in Research Triangle, North Carolina, was the first of these to join. “We had international connections to South America, to Europe,” he said. “We welcomed everyone.”

Milo Medin established a second IXP at NASA Ames on the west coast, Dr. Ricart said, “so we didn’t have a single point of failure.” From there, he added, the future was “just open.” The first commercial Internet providers including PSInet and UUNet also connected in College Park.

In 2013, Dr. Ricart was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame for establishing the world’s first IXP. Today more than 376 IXPs underpin the global Internet.

What started as a “success catastrophe,” according to Dr. Ricart, ultimately sparked a level of human interconnectivity that defied all expectations.

Find out how Dr. Ricart is advancing the Internet today in this article on his non-profit, US Ignite.

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