Cybernaut 

Happy 20th, give or take

While it’s hard to pinpoint the exact moment the Internet was born, a new article in Wired Magazine ( www.wired.com ) makes the case for January 1, 1983. Exactly 20 years ago last Wednesday as a matter of fact.

It was not 1961, when MIT uber-techie Dr. Leonard Kleinrock first published a paper on packet-switching.

It was not 1969, when the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was given the go-ahead from the Department of Defense to create a communication network that could operate in the event of a nuclear attack.

It was not on any of the many milestone dates in the 1970s, a decade that gave rise to e-mail and saw the ARPANET network opened to civilians.

Wired says the crucial date to remember was New Year’s Day in 1983, when the Internet switched its official language from the Network Control Protocol (NCP) to the Transmission Control Protocol and Internet Protocol (TCP/IP).

While that may sound like nerd-stuff, from a technology standpoint it was the move that made the Internet of today possible.

In computer-ese, a protocol is a common language that allows one computer to speak to another, whatever that computer’s native language, or operating platform, may be. With several different computer platforms in use simultaneously, a truly universal language was the missing piece of a very jumbled puzzle.

Until TCP/IP became the standard, less than 1,000 computers were connected through the ARAPNET using the NCP. Programmers decided that the main problem was that the NCP language was not general enough to serve the growing number of networks, and as a result it would have been almost impossible to adapt the NCP to all the different computer systems that were in use back then.

The programmers realized early on that a new protocol was needed if the Internet was going to continue to grow as a whole network, rather than a group of isolated islands.

The switch from NCP to TCP/IP did not happen entirely on its own and it wasn’t always voluntary. The US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and the Defense Communications Agency had to bully all ARPANET users to switch to the new protocol.

To ensure that the conversion went smoothly for computer users (the protocol was already in use by radio and satellite networks), they picked a common date and time for the switch to take place – midnight on New Year’s Eve, 1982.

TCP/IP co-designer Vinton Cerf remembers the conversion as an incredibly stressful time:

"To get people’s attention, while I was still at ARPA in 1982, I colluded with DCA and BBN to shut of the ability of the ARPANET to carry NCP traffic for one day in the summer of 1982 to convince people we were serious about the cutover. We had to do this again in October 1982 for two days to emphasize that we could shut off NCP at will."

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