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The vibrant ghost of Christmases past


By: Scott Bradner


At the start of the Christmas shopping season 20 years ago the US National Science Foundation announced that that a group consisting of Michigan's Merit Network, IBM and MCI had won a contract to develop and deploy the T1 NSFNET.  This network led directly to the Internet of today - the NSFNET was a gift that has kept on giving.


A speed of the T1 NSFNET (1.544 Mbps) was not all that fast, even in those days, but was a lot faster than its 56 Kbps predecessor.  The traffic load on this network grew at a rapid rate, as much as a 20% increase in a month and the load soon outstripped the capacity.  A few years later the NSFNER backbone speed was increased to T3 (45 Mbps), which did help for a while but only for a while.


We would never have had the Internet we know today if the NSFNET stayed the only networking game in town.  But from the very beginning the NSFNET prohibited the use of the network by commercial traffic.  There was a great deal of criticism of this decision by some observers who felt it was hindering the expansion of the use of the net, but the decision was clearly the right one since it forced the development of commercial Internet service providers (ISPs).  These ISPs quickly outstripped then dwarfed the NSFNET in terms of capacity and connections and were easily able to take on the load when the NSFNET was shut down less than 9 years after the T1 network went into service.  (see for a brief history of the NSFNET.)


But even though it had a short life, the NSFNET was a key, if not the key, reason we have the Internet of today.  The NSFNET showed you could build and operate a high-speed network backbone to interconnect regional networks and end sites.  It proved that end-to-end communication over such a network of networks would work even at large scale.  At the start of the NSFNET era there were about 10,000 hosts on the 'Net -- this had grown to over to 6,000,000 by the end of the era.  Not all of these hosts interconnected over the NSFNET and that was part of what made the system so strong. There were thousands of ISPs of all sizes interconnecting over a half dozen or more nation wide backbones by the mid 1990s -- the NSFNET had become just a part of a much greater whole.


The NSFNET also proved that the TCP/IP protocol could be used in large networks without any sort of central manager.  When the NSFNET started there were many other, mostly proprietary, protocols to chose from if you were building an enterprise network.  But the NSFNET management insisted that TCP/IP was the only protocol was the only protocol permitted on the NSFNET.  This helped force the understanding that proprietary protocols did not enable inter organizational communication.  This quickly led to the widespread adoption of TCP/IP.


The NSFNET itself is no longer with us but it is good to celebrate its short life and the organizations and people that made it work  -- and the Internet that it enabled.  An Internet that seems to have no bounds (except the bounds that some telecom companies and some governments would like to impose) and which will be used to buy 10s of billions of dollars worth of Christmas gifts this year.


disclaimer: Harvard has lasted a bit longer than the NSFNET did and I suspect, if asked,  Harvard would say that its made at least  as big an impact on the word, but the legacy of the NSFNET is easier to spot right now - in any case the above opinion on the NSFNET is mine not the university's.