Kees Neggers: Global Networking Requires Global Collaboration
A key figure in the development of the Internet in Europe and the Netherlands, Kees Neggers found himself at the center of the so-called "Protocol Wars" of the 80s and 90s.
Neggers’ strategy at that time was to focus on what worked, collaborating with a host of agencies around the globe with a “win-win” philosophy. In this way, he would lead the effort to create the first Internet Service Provider (ISP) backbone in Europe. "Global networking needs global collaboration,” he asserted when, in 2013, he was inducted into the Internet Hall of Fame.
"I was able to bridge technical people and policy people all over the world,” he told the Internet Hall of Fame in a recent interview. “In doing so, I always focused on creating organizational structures that would last, that would create win-win situations."
Neggers' involvement began as deputy director of the Computer Centre at the Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University), which became the Dutch node for IBM's European Academic and Research Network (EARN).
He became EARN director for the Netherlands. "As a result, I was involved in all areas of networking—local, national and international," he said.
The country was in an economic slump in the early 80s, when academic computer centers were focused mostly on mainframes. “There was not enough attention on networking,” he noted, and the networks that existed “were not on a national scale.”
The Dutch government recognized the country was falling behind and, in 1984, called on the Dutch community to focus on the development and use of information and communication technology.
The result was the SURF project. Devoted to ICT development in the research and higher-education sector in the Netherlands, the project gave birth to SURFnet, which, in turn, focused on building a national network. "I became involved in the whole development of SURFnet, technically and organizationally," Neggers said.
All the networks were using different protocols, and "internetworking was either not available or very clumsy," he explained.
A fierce struggle arose over whether ISO/OSI (Open Systems Interconnection based on ISO standards) or TCP/IP (Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol) would go on to serve as the global networking standard.
"There was a strong belief that OSI was the way to create a worldwide infrastructure. Governments, academic institutions and computer companies alike, they honestly believed that it was best for everybody to replace the various existing networks with a worldwide network based on open systems interconnection," Neggers said.
The Protocol Wars lasted for close to a decade, and while the more nimble and affordable TCP/IP would eventually win out over the cumbersome and expensive ISO/OSI, the latter nearly became the standard.
"OSI started as an international effort to create an open standard for communication," Neggers explained. The effort led to "conflicting interests," and resulted in a protocol stack that was costly and "much too complicated" to work on a global scale.
"The problems there were many-fold," he said, including the PTTs—the powerful post-telegraph and telephone companies—which had a monopoly on telecommunications systems throughout Europe.
The PTTs had limited data-networking capabilities. “PTTs were focused on telephone services, not data services. For computer communications to scale, a different mindset and a different architecture was needed," Neggers noted.
Luckily, the Dutch were pragmatic. "We had a government that was flexible and said, ‘Okay, OSI is our goal, our target, but users need services now,’” he added. So SURFnet was allowed to invest in interim facilities to provide services while working toward standardized solutions.
The Netherlands was advanced compared to other European countries in terms of TCP/IP. By the early 80s, the Center for Mathematics and Informatics (CWI) in Amsterdam, for example, already operated the central node for the European UNIX network (EUnet), which quickly embraced TCP/IP.
Through CWI in 1986, the Netherlands was the first country in the world to obtain a country domain. "In 1988, via CWI and EUnet, the Netherlands was the first to obtain connected status with NSFnet,” Neggers said. “It was the first open, TCP/IP connection between Europe and the U.S."
Several countries were working on national networks. Governments and institutions were clamoring for an international service to coordinate networking services in Europe. With seed money from the Netherlands, the Réseaux Associés pour la Recherche Européenne (RARE) was formed in Amsterdam.
RARE, which later became TERENA and then GÉANT, worked to establish open, computer-networking standards across Europe. "In the 80s, we were all using different protocols," Neggers noted; EARN was using IBM protocols, RARE was using OSI, and EUnet was using UUCP and TCP/IP.
By the mid-80s, the hugely-influential National Science Foundation had decided to support TCP/IP. In Europe and the Netherlands, the limitations of the PTTs continued to be problematic
X.25 was the official data network protocol used by the PTTs at the time, Neggers said. “But, the public PTT services were incapable of serving the need for data communication from the research community.”
With support from the Co-operation for Open Systems Interconnection Networking in Europe (COSINE) project, the International X.25 Infrastructure Backbone Service (IXI) was created. "It was a private X.25 network," Neggers said, provided by the PTTs. "We were allowed to use IP on top of that network."
But, the 64 Kbit/s X.25 service wasn't fast enough. "Even if you got higher-speed 2Mbit/s links, which we had in the Netherlands, the X.25 switches couldn't transport more than a few hundred Kbit/s. At the same time, Cisco routers could use the full capacity of these links,” he explained. “We said, 'This is no longer working, we have to move to a native IP network.’”
So, SURFnet split the 2Mbit links into 1.5Mbit/s and 512Kbit/s links. “The 1.5Mbit/s links were connected to the Cisco routers, leaving the 512Kbit/s links for the X.25 network," Neggers said. “This worked very well.”
SURFnet and NORDUnet then took the initiative and launched Ebone, the first pan-European IP backbone, in 1992. Neggers led the way.
"It was based on a new version of the border-gateway protocol, " Neggers said, making it possible to separate the backbone from the connected networks. "Every connected network could decide for itself who it would connect to…every network had complete freedom."
Neggers described Ebone as a “bottom-up effort,” funded by networks and organizations including EARN, EUnet and HEPnet. "We simply started it ourselves, we didn't ask for financial support from governments or the European Commission," he said. "It was an immediate success."
From day one, Ebone had a 1.5Mbit/s connection to NSFnet in the U.S. "The National Science Foundation allowed this IBM link to connect to everybody at NSFnet, which was “Very, very nice," Neggers said.
Ebone was the first, open Internet backbone in the world. "And, this was in 1992," Neggers marveled. "Everybody who was involved in supporting international network services was welcome to join. Many, many did. We allowed commercial networks to join, as well."
Then, with SURFnet in 2001, Neggers introduced 10 Gbit/s IP networking directly over 10Gbit/s lambda optical waves. Later that year, Neggers and SURFnet unveiled the NetherLight Open Lightpath Exchange in Amsterdam. The exchange had a 2.5Gbit/s connection to StarLight in Chicago.
"On one single strength of fiber, you have multiple frequencies transporting the bits," said Neggers, describing the fiber-optic communication technology known as dense wavelength division multiplexing (DWDM). "Each frequency is called a lambda, which are connected through lightpath exchanges to create a worldwide lambdagrid."
In 2003, Neggers co-founded the Global Lambda Integrated Facility (GLIF), an international consortium promoting lambda networking. He remained GLIF’s chairman until 2016.
Neggers became managing director of SURFnet in 1988, and retired as CEO in 2012. He served as CEO of SURF in 2014 and 2015. From 1986 to 1994, he served RARE as treasurer, vice-president and president, and was a major force behind the creation of TERENA, RIPE-NCC and the Amsterdam Internet Exchange.
A co-founder of the Internet Society's Dutch chapter, Neggers served on the Internet Society’s Board of Trustees for 10 years. He was named “ICT Personality of the Year” in the Netherlands in 2002.