Simon S. Lam is an American computer scientist. He retired in 2018 from The University of Texas at Austin as Professor Emeritus and Regents’ Chair Emeritus in Computer Science #1. He made seminal and important contributions to transport layer security, packet network verification, as well as network protocol design, verification, and performance analysis.
His major awards include: Member of the National Academy of Engineering (inducted in 2007), the 2004 ACM SIGCOMM Award for lifetime contribution to the field of communication networks, and the 2004 ACM Software System Award for Secure Network Programming.
Simon S. Lam was born in Macau (when it was a Portuguese colony) in 1947 with the family name 林 and the given name 善成. He received his secondary education from La Salle College, Kowloon, Hong Kong. He received the BSEE degree with Distinction in 1969 from Washington State University.
Beginning Fall 1969, he attended graduate school at UCLA. His doctoral dissertation on packet switching in a multi-access broadcast channel was supervised by Professor Leonard Kleinrock. From 1971 to 1974, he worked at the ARPA Network Measurement Center at UCLA and contributed to the packet satellite project of ARPANET.
From 1974 to 1977, he was a Research Staff Member at the IBM T. J. Watson Research Center, Yorktown Heights, New York. In August 1977, he joined the faculty of University of Texas at Austin as an Assistant Professor of Computer Science. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 1979, to Full Professor in 1983, appointed to the endowed David Bruton Jr. Centennial Professorship in 1985, and the Regents Chair in Computer Science #1 in 2001. He served as Department Chair from 1992 to 1994.
In 1990, while at the University of Texas at Austin, after writing a theoretical paper on formal semantics of upper and lower interfaces of a protocol layer, he conceived the idea of a new security sublayer in the Internet protocol stack. This sublayer would make use of transport layer sockets for data transfer and, in turn, offers “secure sockets” to application processes. This way, application programmers do not need to know much about implementation details for security. Also, the upper interface of such a sublayer would enable future implementation changes in the layer.
The secure sockets idea created a paradigm shift from contemporary research on how to add security to distributed applications (e.g., Kerberos at MIT, 1988-1992) which did not provide any easy-to-use interface for Internet applications.
Dr. Lam wrote a research proposal to the National Security Agency (NSA). His proposal was funded for two years from June 1991 to June 1993. By 1993, Dr. Lam, with the help of 3 graduate students, designed and implemented the very first secure sockets layer, named Secure Network Programming (SNP).
They demonstrated SNP to their NSA program manager when he visited Austin in June 1993. They also published and presented SNP in the USENIX Summer Technical Conference on June 8, 1994, including its architecture, system design, and performance evaluation results to demonstrate its efficiency and practicality. In early 1993, the SNP work was carried out concurrently and independently of the development of WWW. The Mosaic browser was still in the process of being developed.Subsequent secure sockets layers, SSL and TLS, followed the same architecture and key ideas in SNP.
Today’s secure sockets layer, TLS version 1.3, is used for securing all e-commerce applications (e.g., banking, shopping), for email, and many other Internet applications.
Dr. Lam and his graduate students (Thomas Woo, Raghuram Bindignavle, and Shaowen Su) won the 2004 ACM Software System Award with the citation, “For inventing secure sockets and prototyping the first secure sockets layer named Secure Network Programming.”