The protocol that went live 30 years ago set the standards for Web worldwide

The story of the Internet began in an iconic year; the year when man took that “one giant leap for mankind”, musicians set the stage on fire at Woodstock, two hackers spent a summer developing the path-breaking UNIX operating system, and two engineers at a military research facility stumbled upon a way to make computers talk to each other.

Though the engineers at the ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) made history by enabling exchange of data between two giant computers, via a 15-foot cable, it wasn’t until January, 1983 that the possibility of a World Wide Web was born. A new protocol, the Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP), invented by hackers Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn, paved the way for a network that could link many, many more than the 1,000-odd computers at ARPANET and made it possible for technologists of the future to envisage a stable and scalable Web of computers. The protocol, which went live on January 1, 1983, became the international standard on which the Internet was built.

Of course, we still weren’t talking about the Internet as the mass medium it is today, for, it wasn’t until at least a decade later that British computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web, or the Internet as we know it.

30 years

Earlier this week, marking 30 years of the operable Internet, Cerf, who now goes by the title of Google Inc.’s chief Internet evangelist — where his self-proclaimed job description is to “protect and promote the Internet” — wrote on Google blogs about his “great adventure” at the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he co-engineered this crucial protocol.

Back then, computers had learnt to communicate, but the problem that needed solving was the fact that all the packet switched networks existed, but in silos.

This meant that with no common language, he explains in the blogpost titled ‘Marking the birth of the modern-day Internet’. Each network used its own communication protocol; to put it simply, each network spoke in its own unique language, using different standards or conventions.

The only way around this was to develop a network-neutral method that allowed data to move between unrelated networks.

As early as 1979, Kahn and Cerf published a paper on protocols for this kind of network intercommunication, something that they later split into two parts, TCP and Internet Protocols (IP). Over two years, 400 hosts of the ARPANET — the wide area network of the US DARPA — were migrated to the new protocol.

About the gargantuan exercise, Cerf writes: “There were no grand celebrations — I can’t even find a photograph. The only visible mementos were the “I survived the TCP/IP switchover” pins proudly worn by those who went through the ordeal!” In hindsight, he concedes, “it’s obvious it was a momentous occasion: the day the operational Internet was born.”

Today, 40 years after they wrote their first paper on the protocol, published in IEEE, the “proud parent” recalls that though their “hopes were high”, they hardly imagined that they were laying the foundation for the “worldwide platform” it’s become. The early years following the switch to this new protocol were marred with technical traffic bottlenecks and congestion as more nodes got added to the network.

Many scientists then contributed to ironing out these kinks, and stabilising the protocol, and then making it scalable.

The India story

Of course, the Internet arrived in India much later. In the late ’80s, the academic country first experienced the network in the form of ERNET (Educational and Research Network), a communications project initiated by the Department of Electronics in 1986. It started with a simple dial-up network. This was restricted to the top public institutes — including the Indian Institutes of Technology, Indian Institute of Science, the National Centre for Software Technology and the Department of Electronics — all connected, in 1991, over a 9.6 kbits/sec lease line. Initially running on multiple protocols, the Indian Internet switched to TCP/IP in 1995.

ERNET was followed by NIC-net that connected government departments and organisations, and later other Internet networks were set up by bodies such as the Software Technology Parks of India.

The public Internet, as we know it, entered our homes (and non-academic networks) only in 1995 when VSNL set up six Internet gateways. This gateway Internet access service was first introduced in the four metros, and then extended to Bangalore and Pune. In the initial stages, growth was slow and the Internet, of course, was restricted to geeks.

With the Internet speeds low for nearly a decade after, the Web picked up only in the 2000s after broadband was introduced. Private Internet service providers were allowed to enter the market only in 1997.

Today, with 3G networks covering a substantial chunk of the country, and many cities seeing the launch of high-speed 4G LTE networks, the Internet scene appears to be a promising one. As of mid-2012, India had over 137 million users, much behind China, which had 538 million Internet users, and an Internet penetration of 38.3 per cent. As of 2012, India’s Internet penetration rate was a little over 10 per cent.

The digital world in India has so far mirrored the real-world social divides that exist here.

The Internet, despite these limitations, has indeed been a juggernaut.

Much has been written about the socio-cultural impact the Internet has had on us; and the many facets of our lives, be it how we source our music, access reference material or interact with our friends.

But all this is passe because the next decade will see changes that some believe will transform radically the way we interact with technology and will only deepen our ties with the digital world.