My 30-year love affair with TCP/IP

Is it possible to fall in love with a protocol? I mean, really? I know I am a nerd, and I guess this is yet further evidence of my nerdom. But to properly tell this story, we have to go in the Wayback Machine with Mr. Peabody to 50 years ago, when Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn were working at Stanford and inventing these protocols. I was too young to appreciate the events at the time, but later my life would change drastically as I learned more about TCP/IP and how to get it working in my professional life.

You can read the original 1974 paper here as well as watch an interview with both men that was recorded earlier this year.

In the mid 1990s, I would meet Vint and so began our correspondence that has lasted to this day. I posted an interview with him in 2005 here that is still one of my favorite profiles. This was when he was about to start at Google and when I was running Tom’s Hardware. I asked him to recall the most significant moments of TCP/IP’s development:

  • 1/1/1983 – The cutover on Arpanet to TCP/IP
  • 6/1986 — The beginning of NSFNET
  • 1994 — Netscape supports HTTP over TCP/IP and when Berkeley BSD 4.2 unix release with support for TCP/IP
  • 2007 – The introduction of the iPhone

That is a pretty broad piece of computing history.

TCP/IP spent its first couple of decades growing up. Few people used it, and those that did were more akin to being members of a secret society, the keepers of the flame called Unix. (Unix would evolve into Linux, as well as the MacOS, and then into containers.) But then something called the Internet caught hold in the early 1990s. I wrote a blog post not too many years ago about the early tools we had to suffer with during that era to get TCP/IP working on other computers, such as DOS and Windows and Netware. It was far from easy, and many businesses had all sorts of pain points to get TCP/IP working properly. BTW, that link also has a hilarious clip about “the internet” that has held up well.

Netware is actually where my love for the protocols blossomed. Many of you might recall how powerful this early network operating system was, and how it could run multiple protocols with relative ease. They saw the importance of TCP/IP and invested heavily in equipment that would bring it to ordinary desktops, and by ordinary I mean the versions of Windows that we had to suffer with back then. Setting up a computer to connect to something else then was made a lot easier with Netware’s TCP/IP support.

But it wasn’t just Netware, but the web that really turbo-charged TCP/IP. That also took off during the 1990s, and it went from curiosity to standard practice seemingly overnight. The web really changed how we interacted with information. In my own case, I saw the publications that were making millions of dollars selling printed magazines go to a much reduced online form, and editorial staffs drop dozens of people from their mastheads. Now it is rare that a publication has more than a single full-time editor, which is great if you are a freelancer (which I am) but then budgets continue to shrink too, which is not great.

But in spite of these cataclysmic moments, I still say that I love TCP/IP. I don’t blame the protocol for the transformation of my industry. Au contraire, it made my computing life so much easier. Its beauty was its extensibility, its universal connectedness that was useful in so many different situations. And it also enabled so many apps, both then and now. And every app tells another story, which is after all my bread and butter.

This week, I bought a lighting controller that supports TCP/IP, for example. And that brings up another point. Today, we don’t give TCP/IP much attention, because it has been woven into the fabric of our computing systems so well. It is pervasive: you would be hard pressed to name a computer that doesn’t support TCP/IP. And by computer, I mean our smart TVs and other home appliances, our cable modems, our networks, our cars.

Vint wrote me after he read this essay: “TCP/IP has been improved over the years by people like Van Jacobson and David Taht among others. Google introduced QUIC which provides TCP-like functionality with some additional features. But it has certainly been a workhorse for the world wide web and its applications.” Note what he is doing here: giving credit to other innovators and extensions who have built some interesting things on what he and Kahn came up with 50 years ago. A class act.

So much love to spread around. I count myself lucky to have been present for the last 30 years of the tenure of TCP/IP, and chronicle its growth and popularity.

3 thoughts on “My 30-year love affair with TCP/IP

  1. My first tech support job had me building Windows 95(!) Desktops that ran on a NetWare 3 (I think?) Network. Since you like the TCP/IP history so much you should read “Nerds 2.0.1: A brief history of the internet” While the growing tech was interesting, it was almost equal parts project management to get everything working together. Fascinating stuff that as you say, is a fabric of everything we do online now.

    Edit: had to repost with my name spelled wrong because the previous post failed with the error “forbidden – number in author name not allowed = fak3r” guess they outsmarted me!

  2. This reminds me of my first IT Admin job at my first Trade Association. David knows it well. We were a Netware shop and, I think, installed the Novell IP gateway to run or translate IP over/into IPX (if I have that right).

    There was one member website that would literally crash the gateway. Just going to a website crashed a server. We pleaded with internal users not to go there. Don’t know if there was a way to block it – as I wasn’t the admin at that time – I was more desktop support (I did get good at Zenworks).

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