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National Science Foundation Network (NSFNET)

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At the same time that the Internet technology was being experimentally validated and widely used amongst a subset of computer science researchers, other networks and networking technologies were being pursued.

The usefulness of computer networking especially electronic mail – demonstrated by DARPA and Department of Defense contractors on the ARPANET was not lost on other communities and disciplines, so that by the mid-1970s computer networks had begun to spring up wherever funding could be found for the purpose.

The U.S. Department of Energy (DoE) established MFENet for its researchers in Magnetic Fusion Energy, whereupon DoE’s High Energy Physicists responded by building HEPNet.

NASA Space Physicists followed with SPAN, and Rick Adrion, David Farber, and Larry Landweber established CSNET for the (academic and industrial) Computer Science community with an initial grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation (NSF).

AT&T’s free-wheeling dissemination of the UNIX computer operating system spawned USENET, based on UNIX’ built-in UUCP communication protocols, and in 1981 Ira Fuchs and Greydon Freeman devised BITNET, which linked academic mainframe computers in an “email as card images” paradigm.

With the exception of BITNET and USENET, these early networks (including ARPANET) were purpose-built – i.e., they were intended for, and largely restricted to, closed communities of scholars, there was hence little pressure for the individual networks to be compatible and, indeed, they largely were not.

In addition, alternate technologies were being pursued in the commercial sector, including XNS from Xerox, DECNet, and IBM’s SNA.8. It remained for the British JANET (1984) and U.S. NSFNET (1985) programs to explicitly announce their intent to serve the entire higher education community, regardless of discipline.

Indeed, a condition for a U.S. university to receive NSF funding for an Internet connection was that “… the connection must be made available to ALL qualified users on campus.”

In 1985, Dennis Jennings came from Ireland to spend a year at NSF leading the NSFNET program. He worked with the community to help NSF make a critical decision – that TCP/IP would be mandatory for the NSFNET program.

When Steve Wolff took over the NSFNET program in 1986, he recognized the need for a wide area networking infrastructure to support the general academic and research community, along with the need to develop a strategy for establishing such infrastructure on a basis ultimately independent of direct federal funding. Policies and strategies were adopted to achieve that end.

NSF also elected to support DARPA’s existing Internet organizational infrastructure, hierarchically arranged under the (then) Internet Activities Board (IAB).

The public declaration of this choice was the joint authorship by the IAB’s Internet Engineering and Architecture Task Forces and by NSF’s Network Technical Advisory Group of RFC 985 (Requirements for Internet Gateways), which formally ensured interoperability of DARPA’s and NSF’s pieces of the Internet.

In addition to the selection of TCP/IP for the NSFNET program, Federal agencies made and implemented several other policy decisions which shaped the Internet of today.

The backbone had made the transition from a network built from routers out of the research community (the “Fuzzball” routers from David Mills) to commercial equipment. In its 8 1/2 year lifetime, the Backbone had grown from six nodes with 56 kbps links to 21 nodes with multiple 45 Mbps links.

It had seen the Internet grow to over 50,000 networks on all seven continents and outer space, with approximately 29,000 networks in the United States.

Such was the weight of the NSFNET program’s ecumenism and funding ($200 million from 1986 to 1995) – and the quality of the protocols themselves – that by 1990 when the ARPANET itself was finally decommissioned, TCP/IP had supplanted or marginalized most other wide-area computer network protocols worldwide, and IP was well on its way to becoming THE bearer service for the Global Information Infrastructure.

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