Most people did not learn about the profound impact that Internet pioneer Jon Postel had on their lives until after his untimely death last October.

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USC's Information Systems Institute's Postel Memorial

 
It is a truism that no one controls the Internet.
But if anyone did control it, that man was Jon Postel. Indeed, in 1997 the Economist hailed the bearded, bespectacled and sandal-clad scientist as the omnipotent, omniscient unmoved mover of cyberspace. “If the Net does have a god,” the British newsmagazine proclaimed, “he is probably Jon Postel.”
If so, the Net’s god is dead.
Netizens the world over have mourned the passing of this unpretentious giant who for a quarter century quietly stoked the cyber-machinery from his command post at the USC School of Engineering’s Marina Del Rey-based Information Sciences Institute.
At the memorial held in Bovard Auditorium in November, President Bill Clinton’s words — read by his senior Internet policy advisor, Ira Magaziner — summed up the immense service that Postel had performed:
“Though his life was too brief, Jon Postel made enormous contributions to the course of human progress. As a computer scientist, engineer and designer, he played a pivotal role in the creation of the ARPAnet and its descendant, the Internet. With vision, intelligence and a rigorous insistence on simplicity and elegance of design, he helped to establish and manage the Internet’s growth and development. Because of his efforts,
people across America and around the world have virtually unlimited access to a universe of knowledge.”
Most people did not learn about the profound impact that Internet pioneer Jon Postel had on their lives until after he died Oct. 16 in a Santa Monica hospital of complications following emergency heart surgery.
Postel’s bushy beard, long hair and eccentric attire were far more likely to get noticed than his work. Indeed, in one of several moments of levity during the memorial service, Magaziner recalled a White House meeting with Postel that was delayed 20 minutes because it took that long to persuade Secret Service agents to let the subversive-looking scientist through.
Looking around a room filled with buttoned-down bureaucrats, Magaziner said, “I remember thinking, ‘These people care so much about their place in history, but there’s no one in this dining room that history is going to remember except Jon Postel.’ ”

Postmaster of the Net
As a graduate researcher at UCLA’s Network Measurement Center, Postel was one of the whiz kids who breathed life into the Advanced Research Projects Agency Network, or ARPAnet — the precursor to today’s Internet. The central idea was to break messages into small chunks, or packets, each carrying an address, and send them over a network to find their own way to another computer where the packets could be reassembled into the original message. To work, every computer in the system had to have a unique address — one that humans could easily understand. Postel invented this addressing scheme.
Every computer on the Internet has its own numerical address. The main USC server, for example, is 128.125.253.146. Because humans don’t deal with numbers as easily as computers do, Postel’s scheme translates the numbers into English, so that users can find that USC computer by typing “www.usc.edu.”
In the beginning, the number of computers on the network was very small, and Postel kept track of them on scraps of paper. Eventually, note paper wasn’t enough, and the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) came into existence at the USC Information Sciences Institute, under federal contract to manage the address system. Postel became IANA’s director, retaining the job until his death.
Few organizations have played as critical a role as IANA in the Internet realm.
“Someone had to keep track of all the protocols, the identifiers, networks and addresses and ultimately the names of all the things in the networked universe,” wrote Vint Cerf, chairman of the Internet Society and another of the Internet’s originators, in a tribute to Postel that was widely circulated shortly after his death.
IANA gave the Internet stability and robustness by assigning and managing, in an orderly fashion, the unique numbers and unique names of the Internet Domain Name System (DNS). IANA allocated blocks of the numerical addresses to regional registries throughout the world, which in turn issued them to Internet service providers and users. IANA also assigned and maintained a registry of values for several technical parameters — including protocol numbers, port numbers and other units — that had to be unique for the Internet to operate.

Keeper of the Traffic Code
Postel had another, perhaps even more crucial role with the Internet. He was its chief clerk and archivist.
In his tribute, Cerf noted that someone had to “keep track of all the information that erupted with volcanic force from the intensity of debates and discussions and endless invention that has continued un-abated for 30 years.”
For a quarter century, Postel served as editor of the Request for Comments (RFC) series of technical notes, which began with the earliest days of the ARPAnet. The name “request for comments” reflects the free and open nature of the Internet and was coined by Postel’s friend and fellow Internet pioneer Stephen Crocker. Crocker didn’t know who was in charge, didn’t want to offend anyone, and so he humbly labeled the first such technical proposal “request for comments.” The name stuck.
RFCs laid the foundation for technical standards governing the Internet’s operation and are, in effect, the sprawling Infobahn’s global bylaws. These rules allow computers to communicate. Postel was the most important of the small number of people who managed the process of arriving at a consensus for literally hundreds of technical agreements that keep the Internet functioning. Today, there are nearly 25 million hosts on the Internet. The only reason they can communicate reliably, smoothly and seamlessly is because engineers all over the world were able to agree upon the standards and protocols that govern it.

 

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