Remembering Jon - The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 11, No. 4

by Vint Cerf, Google

A decade has passed since Jon Postel left us.[0] It seems timely to look back beyond that decade and to look forward beyond a decade hence. It seems ironic that a man who took special joy in natural surroundings, who hiked the Muir Trail and spent precious time in the high Sierras, was also deeply involved in that most artificial of enterprises, the Internet. As the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) [1] and the Request for Comments (RFC) editor, Jon could hardly have chosen more polar interests. Perhaps the business of the artificial world was precisely what stimulated his interest in the natural one.

Photo: Peter Lôthberg

As a graduate student at UCLA in the late 1960s, Jon was deeply involved in the ARPANET project, becoming the first custodian of the RFC note series inaugurated by Stephen D. Crocker. He also undertook to serve as the "Numbers Czar," tracking domain names, Internet addresses, and all the parameters, numeric and otherwise, that were critical to the successful functioning of the burgeoning ARPANET and, later, Internet protocols. His career took him to the east and west coasts of the United States but ultimately led him to the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute (ISI), where he joined his colleagues, Danny Cohen, Joyce K. Reynolds, Daniel Lynch, Paul Mockapetris, and Robert Braden, among many others, who were themselves to play important roles in the evolution of the Internet.

It was at ISI that Jon served longest and as the end of the 20th century approached, began to fashion an institutional home for the work he had so passionately and effectively carried out in support of the Internet. In consultation with many colleagues, but par ticularly with Joseph Sims of the Jones Day law firm and Ira Magaziner, then at the Clinton administration White House, Jon worked to design an institution to assume the IANA responsibilities. Although the path to its creation was rocky, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) [2] was officially created in early October 1998, just two weeks before Jon's untimely death on October 16.

In 1998 an estimated 30 million computers and 70 million users were on the Internet. In the ensuing decade, the user population has grown to almost 1.5 billion and the number of servers on the Internet now exceeds 500 million (not counting episodically connected laptops, personal digital assistants [PDAs], and other such devices). As this decade comes to a close, the Domain Name System (DNS) is undergoing a major change to accommodate the use of non-Latin character sets in recognition that the world's languages are not exclusively expressible in one script [7]. A tidal wave of newly Internet-enabled devices as well as the increasing penetration of Internet access in the world's population is consuming what remains of the current IPv4 address space, accelerating the need to adopt the much larger IPv6 address space in parallel with the older one. More than three billion mobile devices are in use, roughly 15 percent of which are already Internet-enabled.

Jon would take considerable satisfaction knowing that the institution he worked hard to create has survived and contributed materially to the stability of the Internet. Not only has ICANN managed to meet the serious demands of Internet growth and importance in all aspects of society, but it has become a worked example of a new kind of international body that embraces and perhaps even defines a multi-stakeholder model of policy making. Governments, civil society, the private sector, and the technical community are accommodated in the ICANN policy development process. By no means a perfect and frictionless process, it nonetheless has managed to take decisions and adapt to the changing demands and new business developments rooted in the spread of the Internet around the globe.

Always a strong believer in the open and bottom-up style of the Internet, Jon would also be pleased to see that the management of the Internet address space has become regionalized and that five Regional Internet Registries (RIRs) [3] now cooperate on global policy, serving and adapting to regional needs as they evolve. He would be equally relieved to find that the loose collaboration of DNS root zone operators has withstood the test of time and the demands of a much larger Internet, showing that their commitment has served the Internet community well. Jon put this strong belief into practice as he founded and served as ex-officio trustee of the American Registry for Internet Numbers (ARIN) [4].

As the first individual member of the Internet Society he helped to found in 1992, Jon would certainly be pleased that it has become a primary contributor to the support of the Internet protocol standards process, as intended. The Internet Architecture Board and Internet Engineering and Research Task Forces, as well as the RFC editing functions, all receive substantial support from the Internet Society.

He might be surprised and pleased to discover that much of this support is derived from the Internet Society's creation of the Public Interest Registry (PIR) [5, 6] to operate the .org top-level domain registry. The Internet Society's scope has increased significantly as a consequence of this stable support, and it contributes to global education and training about the Internet as well as to the broad policy developments needed for effective use of this new communication infrastructure.

As a computer scientist and naturalist, Jon would also be fascinated and excited by the development of an interplanetary extension of the Internet to support manned and robotic exploration of the Solar System. In October 2008, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory began testing of an interplanetary protocol using the Deep Impact spacecraft now in eccentric orbit around the sun. This project began almost exactly 10 years ago and is reaching a major milestone as the first decade of the 21st century comes to an end.

It is probable that Jon would not agree with all the various choices and decisions that have been made regarding the Internet in the last 10 years, and it is worth remembering his philosophical view: "Be conservative in what you send and liberal in what you receive."

Of course he meant this idea in the context of detailed protocols, but it also serves as a reminder that in a multi-stakeholder world, accommodation and understanding can go a long way toward reaching consensus or, failing that, at least toleration of choices that might not be at the top of everyone's list.

No one, not even someone of Jon's vision, can predict where the Internet will be decades hence. It is certain, however, that it will evolve and that this evolution will come, in large measure, from its users. Virtually all the most interesting new applications of the Internet have come not from the providers of various Internet-based services, but from ordinary users with extraordinary ideas and the skills to experiment. That they are able to experiment is a consequence of the largely open and nondiscriminatory access to the Internet that has prevailed over the past decade. Maintaining this spirit of open access is the key to further development, and it seems a reasonable speculation that if Jon were still with us, he would be in the forefront of the Internet community in vocal and articulate support of that view.

A 10-year toast seems in order. Here's to Jonathan B. Postel, a man who went about his work diligently and humbly, who served all who wished to partake of the Internet and to contribute to it, and who did so asking nothing in return but the satisfaction of a job well done and a world open to new ideas.


[0] Vint Cerf, "I Remember IANA," The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 1, No. 3, December 1998. Also published as RFC 2468, October 1998.


[2] Vint Cerf, "Looking Toward the Future," The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 10, No. 4, December 2007.

[3] Daniel Karrenberg, Gerard Ross, Paul Wilson, and Leslie Nobile, "Development of the Regional Internet Registry System," The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 4, No. 4, December 2001.




[7] Huston, G., "Internationalizing the Domain Name System," The Internet Protocol Journal, Volume 11, No. 1, March 2008.

VINTON G. CERF is vice president and chief Internet evangelist for Google. Cerf served as a senior vice president of MCI from 1994 through 2005. Widely known as one of the "Fathers of the Internet," Cerf is the co-designer of the TCP/IP protocols and the architecture of the Internet. He received the U.S. National Medal of Technology in 1997 and the 2004 ACM Alan M. Turing award. In November 2005, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Cerf served as chairman of the board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) from 2000 through 2007 and was founding president of the Internet Society. He is a Fellow of the IEEE, ACM, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, the International Engineering Consortium, the Computer History Museum, and the National Academy of Engineering. He is an honorary Freeman of the City of London. Cerf holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Mathematics from Stanford University and Master of Science and Ph.D. degrees in Computer Science from UCLA. E-mail: