Field General of the Protocol Wars

September 25, 2013

In July 1983 in Oslo, a dozen computer scientists sat discussing how to interconnect the isolated academic and research networks then operating in the U.S. and Europe. Francois Flückiger was there representing CERN, the European Nuclear Research Agency. Larry Landweber of America’s CSNet (who had organized the meeting), Peter Kirstein of University College London, and representatives of the American university-centered BITNet and of several small European networks, were pondering a novel idea: Could there possibly be a way for all their networks to interconnect?

Flückiger, recalling that meeting at its scenic location, later wrote: “Talking and looking out from the idyllic Hotel Holmenkollen over the Fiord of Oslo, we carried on our discussions long into the evening, late, very late, in the Norwegian summer, waiting for a night that did not come.”

The reason those discussions went on so long was: Yes, the attendees were tremendously excited about the idea of creating a universal network, and they believed they could make it happen. But they also were deeply divided over the choice of technologies such a network would use. That divide, one of the thorniest issues the researchers would encounter for a decade, came to be called The Protocol War.

In the early 1980s, the preferred computer networking rules of most European nations were the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI) protocols – information exchange standards developed by the Swiss-based International Organization for Standardization and the International Telecommunication Union. National and regional pride was booming, there was great resistance to the thought of any universal network being U.S.-centric – and the IP had been developed in the U.S.

It took a European visionary, Flückiger, to see beyond national boundaries to the truth that the multitude of small networks then in existence needed to be able to connect with one another in the simplest and most efficient way possible: using the IP.

Many researchers of that era were working for organizations funded by European states: It would be a hard “sell” to promote a technology that was considered to be against the interests of big, successful European companies. But Fluckiger was just the man for the job. Since 1978, he’d been working on CERNet, which used a datagram protocol very similar to the IP, so he understood from the start: “The OSI protocols were complicated, inefficient, and designed to maximize the revenues of networks’ operators, who were using connection-oriented technologies to perpetuate the telephone model of per-call charging. The Internet, on the other hand, demonstrates that research motivated by the quest for knowledge and not constrained by politics can initiate, conduct and achieve global undertakings.”

If the struggle for the IP was a war, François Flückiger was a masterful field general. He promoted IP-based networks like EUNet at conferences on both sides of the Atlantic using not just logic, but also humor.

Beginning as a teenager, Flückiger had enjoyed drawing cartoons. Now he had a new use for his artistry. At meetings of researchers across Europe, he distributed original cartoons pointing out the superiority of the IP, and the futility of backing the obviously doomed OSI protocols. In 1990, for example, at a European Academic and Research Networking Conference in Ireland, he put some of his cartoons on a table that also held the minutes of each day’s meetings. Very quickly, all 500 copies he’d made were scooped up, and he was being congratulated by highly amused attendees.

While the Protocol War was still being waged, Flückiger was extending his efforts to link research networks not just in Europe and the U.S., but worldwide.  

In May 1988 he organized the first meeting of CCIRN (Coordinating Committee for Intercontinental Research Networks), whose goal was to achieve interoperable networking services in areas like Africa, the Asia-Pacific region, Latin America.

And CCIRN itself spawned another vital organization. At the second CCIRN meeting, in the U.S. in October 1988, the Americans turned up in force.

“But European representatives were few,” Flückiger says: “just a German representative, a British representative and myself. The Americans said, ‘You Europeans must set up a structure to allocate Internet addresses in Europe. It is not good that we keep doing it for you.’ My two colleagues replied that they did not foresee the use of the Internet Protocol in Europe, so I took the initiative. Two months later, my colleague Olivier Martin and I called a meeting with interested European parties to promote the idea of a structure to coordinate IP networks and IP addresses. Daniel Karrenberg from EUNet  proposed the name ‘RIPE (Réseaux IP Européens)’ for the organization that we were creating. It was a French name, but its acronym was also relevant in English, for the time was indeed ‘RIPE’ to organize the Internet in Europe.”

Not long afterwards, the RIPE-NCC (Network Coordination Center) was created, to allocate Internet addresses in Europe.

Tim Berners-Lee famously invented the World Wide Web while at CERN, but it was Flückiger who oversaw the Internet migration of CERN’s external network. "In 1991, that network (the set of links connected to CERN) became the largest European Internet hub, aggregating up to 80% of the total transnational bandwidth."

This hub also became part of the pan-European Internet backbone, Ebone, for which Flückiger in 1992 drafted the Memorandum of Understanding setting forth its basic principles. And when Berners-Lee left CERN for the USA in 1994, Flückiger took over Sir Tim’s responsibilities, including management of CERN’s World Wide Web team.

Having seen first-hand the benefits of researchers from around the world uniting to tackle common problems, Flückiger arranged in 1992 for CERN to become a founding member of the Internet Society. He went on to chair the Inet 1998, 2001 and 2002 program committees and the Technology Track for Inets 1993, 1999, and 2000. Currently, while he’s CERN’s Knowledge and Technology Transfer Officer and director of its School of Computing, he still makes time to serve on the ISOC Advisory Committee.

Asked what advice he’d give to future generations working in computer science, Flückiger recently replied: “Be good in more than one domain.”

Obviously, his peers believe that he himself has been pretty good in at least three domains: For his technical skills in making CERN the largest Internet hub in Europe, for his political skills in getting recalcitrant European nations to adopt the Internet Protocol, and for his community-building skills in bringing researchers together for the good of all, he has now taken his place among his fellow luminaries in the Internet Hall of Fame.

Learn more about Francois' work and view his acceptance speech.


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