What is Happening to the Internet?
Recent changes to the Internet are turning the network of the military-industrial complex into the most likely prospect for an all-encompassing electronic-mail system.
By Bruce Schneier
Business cards used to be simple: name, company, address, telephone number and maybe a logo. Then came facsimile numbers. Now something with an @ in it is appearing on more and more business cards. It's an Internet address; you probably have one already, although you may not know it, and sometime during the next couple of years you will have to learn it.
With an estimated 25 million users, the Internet is by far the world's largest electronic-mail network, and its reach is extending to more private and public mail systems every week.
"If [people are] serious about electronic mail, I can get to them via the Internet; if they're not, I probably don't have time to figure out how to reach them," said Bob Halloran, network manager at AT&T Co.'s Universal Card Services in Jacksonville, Fla.
Recent changes in the scope and structure of the Internet are transforming the network from a communications channel for public researchers and defense contractors into the likeliest candidate for a standard, all-encompassing E-mail system.
What is it, and how did it start? The Internet provides four basic services: E-mail; public areas, called news groups, where messages about particular topics are posted for discussion; a download capability and many on-line libraries; and a remote terminal capability with which users can log on to other computer systems. Numerous gateways link Internet E-mail and news groups to commercial on-line services and LAN mail systems; the other two services generally are available only to native Internet accounts.
"[The] Internet offers unprecedented power and scope to the individual at a terminal. You can connect to systems in 33 nations from any keyboard, more or less instantaneously, and at little or no charge," said Jack Rickard, editor of the Littleton, Colo.-based Boardwatch Magazine, which covers on-line services.
The Internet has been around in one form or another since 1969. Then it was called the ARPA Internet, or just Arpanet, because it was funded by the U.S. government's Defense Advanced Research Projects Administration to link various governmental, academic and industrial sites. Since then, the Internet has added users and networks at an increasing rate. The system now is so big and so confusing that practically no two people can agree on where the Internet proper ends and the systems connected to it begin.
What changed? The Internet backbone, the network linking the networks, is managed by Advanced Network and Services Inc., an Elmsford, N.Y.-based non-profit partnership of IBM Corp., MCI Communications Corp. and Merit Network Inc. Merit is a Michigan-based non-profit that has managed the backbone since 1987.
According to ANS President Allan Weiss, the number of networks connected to the Internet backbone tripled during 1991, resulting in a quintupling of backbone traffic. Using Merit's figures quoted in Boardwatch, last December's backbone traffic averaged more than 40 Gbytes a day.
That month, the increasing load prompted the government to authorize funding for a gigabit-per-second network to replace the existing backbone. Regional networks connected to this backbone typically are made up of 1.5-Mbps or 45-Mbps digital trunk lines, with a large number of 19.2-Kbps dial-up links as well.
"Think of it like state highway systems' connections to the interstates. Then think about these highways at rush hour in any major city," said AT&T's Halloran.
Technically, the government-funded networks are for educational, government and research use only. Complex rules limit commercial use to institutions that support appropriate research. A number of computer-industry leaders, including Apple CEO John Sculley, testified to Congress at the end of last year to loosen those restrictions for the future backbone.
Mail is the reason. The sudden upswing in the Internet's popularity largely is because of the increased interconnection among E-mail services. Someone with an Internet account can exchange electronic mail with other Internet users, as well as users on CompuServe, MCI, AppleLink and various other mail systems. Similarly, users of these linked systems can use the Internet as a conduit between them.
"Before, the only way for on-line users to exchange messages was to belong to the same service. Now CompuServe users, for example, can send messages to AppleLink users via the Internet. The commercial E-mail services are getting on because it gives their users wider access," Halloran said.
America Online, GEnie and Prodigy remain unconnected. GEnie promises to tie its users to the Internet eventually, but Prodigy has no plans for an Internet link.
America Online began testing its Internet gateway several weeks ago. Steve Case, president of America Online Inc. of Vienna, Va., said: "We consider the Internet to be the de facto national standard, and we will embrace it to the fullest extent we can. A gateway is only the beginning."
The Internet connects with networks in countries worldwide, including the recently formed GlasNet in the Commonwealth of Independent States. Even people logging onto one of the hobbyist bulletin board services that form the FidoNet network can communicate with Internet users through gateways. Current estimates put the number of FidoNet BBSes at 12,000, and "the number of FidoNet systems grows weekly," according to David Dyer-Bennet, owner and operator of the Terraboard BBS based in Minneapolis.
Software distribution is another source of the Internet's popularity and traffic.
"We use the Internet to distribute applications and collect customers' programs for debugging," said Don Powers, applications group leader at National Instruments
Corp. of Austin, Texas. Said Halloran, "I can get timely program patches, work-arounds for problems and tons of useful utilities -- software from three continents in real time."
Similarly, Apple maintains a publicly accessible server on the Internet where developers can download programming tools, utilities and code examples.
What's coming? The Internet of the future will be different from the Internet of today. With paid E-mail systems already connected and commercial database services, such as Dialog Information Services Inc.'s, coming on-line, the Internet will become even more useful to business than it is today. With billions of dollars in public and private funding, the network's infrastructure will become far more capable.
But the biggest part of the change may be in increased public awareness of the giant network. The system is surprisingly obscure, partly because of its complexity. However, the Internet's strengths -- wide-area networking, nearly universal E-mail and open standards for interconnection -- coincide with many businesses' most pressing net-work concerns. A fruitful collision between the Internet and the business world is virtu-ally guaranteed.
"It's having some problems politically right now, but it's taking on a life of its own," said Boardwatch's Rickard. "Eventually, it's going to connect everybody."
Resources for Learning the Internet
If you want to study up on the Internet, there are a number of references and resources available to you.
An excellent start is "The Matrix, Computer Networks, and Conferencing Systems Worldwide" by John S. Quarterman, available for $49.95 (order number EY-C176E-DP) from Digital Press, P.O. Box CS 2008, Nashua, N.H. 03061. Phone (603) 884-6660 or (800) 344-4825; fax (800) 234-2298.
The curiously titled "!%@:: A Dictionary of Electronic Mail Addressing and Networks," second edition, is also a good resource at $27.95. It is published by O'Reilly and Associates Inc., 103 Morris St., Suite A, Sebastopol, Calif. 95472. Phone (707) 829-0515 or (800) 338-6887; fax (707) 829-0104.
"The BMUG Guide to Bulletin Boards and Beyond" by Bernard Aboba introduces first-timers to hobbyist systems and Internet mail. It costs $20 from BMUG Inc., 1442A Walnut St., #62, Berkeley, Calif. 94709. Phone (510) 549-2634; fax (510) 849-9026.
The New User's Guide to Useful and Unique Resources on the Internet is available for $25 from NYSERNet at 111 College Place, Syracuse, N.Y. 13244. Phone (315) 443-4120; fax (315) 443-1973.
How to Become Part of the Internet
If your company wants Internet access, you have a number of options.
If you are affiliated with a university, you should have a relatively easy time of it. Virtually all universities have access, even though the department managing the connection may not do a good job publicizing it.
Some groups run systems offering free or very low-cost access. The Cleveland Freenet, based at Cleveland's Case Western University, was one of the first systems to offer free public access into the Internet. Other similar networks have sprung up; most are run by public agencies. Ohio sports three, and Peoria, Ill., has one as well.
Companies selling access to the Internet also are starting up around the country. Performance Systems International of Reston, Va., runs one of the better-known of these private networks. For a monthly fee, anyone can get an account. "We have over 1,000 customers in over 40 cities nationwide," said Kimberly Brown, marketing and communications specialist at PSI.
Other services, such as The World, run by Software Tool & Die Inc. of Brookline, Mass., and Netcom Online Communications Services of San Jose, Calif., also provide paid Internet access.
Once you get an account on an Internet node, you're off and running -- that is, if you know the Unix or VMS commands required. Eudora, a publicly distributable program written by Steven Dorner at the University of Illinois at Urbana, puts a Macintosh front end on Internet's electronic-mail system.
"As a campus computing organization, we found that we were losing customers because they felt the Unix-based mail system was too hard to learn and use; we wrote Eudora to win those people back," Dorner said.
Several commercial programs also put nicer faces on Internet services, including TCP/Connect II from InterCon Systems Corp. of Herndon, Va., and uAccess and uAccessLite from Griffin Software Systems Technologies Inc. of Florence, Mass.
Various Mac E-mail systems can be linked to Internet mail through gateways, including those from InterCon, Information Electronics of Hammondsport, N.Y., and StarNine Technologies Inc. of Berkeley, Calif.
Schneier.com is a personal website. Opinions expressed are not necessarily those of Co3 Systems, Inc.