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How the Clinton “Village” Transformed Internet Paradigms: Together Making a Difference

U.S. Presidential elections and the resulting Administrations can make an enormous difference on many levels and become profound points of inflection. This reality is certainly starkly visible today. Perhaps for the Internet community as well as the general public, some of the largely unknown events and actions surrounding the Internet and the Clinton team from 25 years ago can provide a basis for engagement over the coming months. When Presidents get elected, they bring with them a kind of “village” of people who significantly shape what ensues. But for the Clinton village, a very different kind of internet would have emerged.

A quarter century ago, another internet together with an array of applications known collectively as OSI were poised to scale to become the global and U.S. national infrastructures. The specifications had been developed by all the major government agencies together with most of the significant telecom and IT industry players and organizations, and coordinated for years internationally. Billions of dollars had been spent and enormous resources consumed for the development of infrastructure and platforms. OSI domain name regulations were promulgated by the Dept. of Commerce’s, NTIA. X.400 email addresses and associated X.500 Directory systems had been rolled out to government agencies. NIST, DOD, GSA—everyone was involved as were counterparts in other countries. Major companies were slowly implementing the new platforms.

There was also an alternative mirror universe of largely academic institution rebels who were pursuing their own internet. It was based on a DARPA TCP/IP protocol rather than OSI’s CLNP. The rebels used something called DNS rather the X.500 OID based naming system. The email was SMTP/POP rather than X.400. The hypertext navigation used HTML rather than OSI’s GSML. The specifications were developed and code written on university campuses and coordinated through a “non-enties” called the Internet Engineering Task Force and Internet Architecture Board rather than the massive international bodies, the ITU CCITT and OSI JTC1, and domestically the powerful Exchange Carriers Standards Association (now ATIS) and American National Standards Institute (ANSI). The secretariat for managing the ragtag academic internet infrastructure consisted of two people at the Information Sciences Institute in Marina del Ray and a few more up at SRI in Menlo Park running a Network Information Center paid for by DARPA spare change—versus huge, well-funded OSI internet secretariats maintained in Washington and around the world that charged thousands of dollars for a domain name.

The underlying DARPA internet infrastructure was cobbled together worldwide on leased lines for academic science purposes out of National Science Foundation and university IT budgets. Called the NREN, it was a T1 national backbone with the capacity of 1.544 Mb/s—versus the virtually limitless capacity of global and national telecommunications networks for the OSI internet.

In 1992, it was the OSI internet that was poised to inherit the world. In official government and corporate circles, mention of the DARPA TCP/IP internet occurred only in disparaging terms out of public view. It was supposed to disappear. Something happened.

In November 1992, Bill Clinton won the U.S. Presidential election with Al Gore as his VP running mate. A few months later they moved into the White House. Along with them came a small team of people who had helped their getting elected by organizing and communicating for the first time using eMail and network technologies. The new staff as well as Clinton, Gore, and even their family and friends had a substantial knowledge and appreciation of the new networking technologies—together with the vision and leadership to drive major change. It also helped that Gore as Senator had a great affection for scientific research and with equally passionate staff had obtained several billion dollars in the late 80s to fund a national NREN TCP/IP internet infrastructure with extensions to other countries worldwide, with additional money for innovators in academic institutions to devise new applications.

One of the most visible first emissaries of the new Administration’s village as it arrived in Washington was a bespectacled man from Vermont with a raspy voice and a closely cropped white beard who bore an impressive White House business card with the simple title: Director of Special Projects. He was a longtime friend of Hillary Clinton and had volunteered to help set up the networks to get her husband elected. He had unbounded passion, energy, and considerable insistence for the Clinton village. His name was Jock Gill and one of his first calls was to the Sprint corporation offices in Reston that had the government network support contract for the White House. He was referred to Sprint’s newly hired Director of Internet business development who also happened to be VP for International at a new startup organization called the Internet Society.

Jock had a simple and very emphatic request—the White House and the President wanted TCP/IP Internet services including eMail for non-classified communication as soon as possible. Sprint—which also provided the White House X.400 email services—cobbled together an arrangement that piped the emails on a 19.6 kB packet link to Merit at Ann Arbor who ran a gateway to the TCP/IP internet. Jock complained that “a snake with the email in its mouth could make it out of the White House faster.” Sprint quickly provided a then high capacity T1 line directly to an internal network of PCs for Clinton staff. That line then was used for a followup project that Gill conceived and led—a White House website. This was all essentially unknown and radical at the time, but Clinton personally demanded at Cabinet meetings that every government agency also establish a Website, and then at meetings with foreign dignitaries, suggested that they follow suit. He wanted to communicate with them using DNS style eMail, not X.400 addresses. Sprint senior staff was even given White House access to load on the TCP/IP stack software required at the time to make Windows PCs internet functional. Clinton’s gutsy, folksy leadership changed everything, and it was followed up in subsequent years with Hillary Clinton’s It Takes a Village conceptualizations to cement the new paradigm in place.

Jock Gill was the vanguard of a team of new White House staff that marshalled considerable resources of the U.S. government and is allies to make the global TCP/IP internet happen. New staff like Mike Nelson and Tom Kalil were brought into the President’s Office of Science and Technology Policy. Key policymakers at the FCC were given Internet briefings, and people like Commissioner Susan Ness became part of the Internet village. The Internet Society’s first Executive Director was tasked in 1994 to conduct countless early morning audio-visual Internet briefings to foreign officials brought to far flung U.S. missions. On one occasion, the USIA radio “global beam” was used to host an Internet Q&A call-in from around the world. One of the ultimately most important events in the history of the TCP/IP Internet occurred when Bill Gates was convinced to build the protocol stack into the Win95 operating system.

The OSI Internet quietly disappeared in the mid-90s about the same time as the President, Vice President, and their staff hosted a gala Internet luncheon for the many people who came together to make it happen. He knew enough to go around mingling and talking with everyone about the technology and their roles. It was quietly impressive.

A book could be written to describe all the people, activities, and events that went into what is described here; and which by any measure was one of the most fundamental transformations in human communication technology and economic development. There were many people who—as Hillary Clinton likes to note—came to work together. However, it ultimately relied on bringing into power, leadership and a surrounding team with vision, policy innovation, the knowledge, and the skills to make it occur.

* The author is the former Sprint Director of Internet Business Development, and VP for International and the Executive Director of the Internet Society.

By Anthony Rutkowski, Principal, Netmagic Associates LLC

The author is a leader in many international cybersecurity bodies developing global standards and legal norms over many years.

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OSI failed on its merits; TCP/IP succeeded in spite of massive opposition Dave Crocker  –  Aug 3, 2016 5:40 PM

Tony’s idiosyncratic analysis of the Internet’s history would merely be mildly amusing (or mildly irritating) if a serious understanding of OSI’s failure were not so important to current and future technology development efforts.  The fulcrum on which Tony’s analysis tilts in the wrong direction is his claim that OSI was poised for global success 25 years ago and that actions during the Clinton administration caused the failure.  The reality is that by that time, OSI had already lost the war.

Work on the ISO’s OSI technologies began around the time that the Internet’s TCP/IP began testing: 1976.  OSI had massive support by governments and industry, including the US government, which eventually mandated that networking product purchases include OSI support.  OSI had many components.  Each one was complicated and most failed to achieve viability for large-scale use.  There were many pockets of experimentation and some pockets of production use, but none worked at scale in an open environment.  Ever.

By way of example, the email standard, X.400 was enormously more complex than Internet Mail core specifications.  Worse, X.400 underwent major revisions a number of times, which destabilized adoption efforts and demotivated vendors.  Even the addressing model for X.400 was highly problematic, since it had many fields and required specifying the carrier (ADMD) mail was to be sent through.

  For organizations attempting to use X.400, it was not uncommon for the user’s business card to specify multiple carriers!

The Clinton administration began in 1993.  By that time, OSI was already a lost cause, though of course many OSI advocates claimed otherwise.  The Internet’s growth was remarkably steady, from its inception, and it is generally agreed to have reached mass-market adoption levels by 1994.  Hardly enough time for Clinton’s folk to have made a difference in that battle.  There were, indeed, benefits (and possibly detriments) of Clinton administration efforts that followed, but the fate of OSI was not one of them.

The move towards commercialization of the Internet was quite marked starting in the latter 1980s, although formal government and industry support for OSI was still quite strong.  It happens that I was the first ‘commercial’ participant in the IETF who did not have a government contract, and that was in 1986 (maybe 1987) and many other companies began attending after that.  Amusingly, 1/3 of my company’s Internet product revenues came from European customers, although Europe was the heart of OSI advocacy.  In fact, one of my customers was the ISO IT department!  I asked their IT director whether he was criticized for buying TCP/IP solutions and he got quiet and serious and said “they gave me a problem to solve; they don’t get to tell me how to solve it.” 

My product team supported both OSI and TCP/IP.  When we started to plan for a product to aid in transition from the presumably temporary use of TCP/IP to the longer-term use of OSI, we started querying users about what they wanted.  Their answer was consistent: they wanted support for moving from OSI to TCP/IP instead!  And this was, again, in the 1980s.  An oft-quoted summary of the situation came from Einar Stefferud: “OSI is a beautiful dream, and TCP/IP is living it!”

The OSI work committed three major sins:  1) Each technology had an overly-complicated core. 2) Each technology took far too long to get into the field, and 3) the standards failed to gain, and benefit from, practical experience.

The Internet technologies were driven by the pragmatics of development, administration and use.  They tended towards simpler, core mechanisms, were fielded quickly and were revised based on that field experience.

That’s the lesson we need to learn for current and future work.

X.400 addressing details Dave Crocker  –  Aug 3, 2016 6:44 PM

Tried to include a point to more information about the impressive X.400 addresses. Let's see whether it works this time: X.400 Addressing

Mr. Crocker's useful amplification Anthony Rutkowski  –  Aug 4, 2016 11:43 AM

Mr. Crocker's comment about OSI being a lost cause is important, and he adds substantial additional information, especially the "three sins." At various levels, most of the OSI Internet was failing in the marketplace even as the new Clinton Administration was arriving in Washington. With this said, the role of the Clinton administration and the remarkable people brought into the mix who implemented DARPA/NREN Internet platforms not only in the White House and the rest of the Federal government, but evangelized and funded connectivity worldwide, played very significant roles in the speed and extent to which those platforms became successful. This includes school networking initiatives. The point of the article was that national leadership and the "village" brought around them, makes a significant difference. Recognition should also be given to VP Gore who as a senator, had obtained 5 billion dollars in funding to bring about the NREN tcp/ip Internet infrastructure and innovation, domestically and internationally. That money was well spent over the period stretching into the 90s, and effectively leveraged by the incoming Clinton Administration. Five billion strategically spent dollars arguably placed the U.S. at the forefront of the global internetworking marketplace.

There was no "OSI Internet" Dave Crocker  –  Aug 5, 2016 8:34 PM

OSI was never functional as a global networking service.  There were products.  There were pockets of use.  But there was never anything like the kind of integrated, extended access that we take for granted with the TCP/IP Internet.  The closest they can was an X.400 email service operating over the TCP/IP Internet, but it, too, never achieved broad, integrated service levels.

As for the Clinton administration causing.. Federal… funded connectivity worldwide” what are you referring to?  Certainly the US government participated in the growth of the Internet in myriad ways, through the 1990s.  But that is quite a different statement than was implied/stated in the original posting here.

The premise of the original posting was that the OSI technology was “poised to scale to become the global and U.S. national infrastructures” and that’s simply false.  By that time, it had already failed in the market.  What was poised—or rather what was already an established juggernaut—was the TCP/IP Internet. 

As for Gore and NREN, that was around 1991, which predates the Clinton administration.  The Clinton administration did a good job of avoiding screwing things up, but the benefits of such restraint are quite different from the active/coercive influences asserted by the original posting.

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