Network Geeks

The title is catchy yet not very informative about what to expect from the contents. The current state of the Internet raised many interesting mathematical problems, but I was not really expecting these to be discussed here. So I started reading with an open mind, but having read the book, it is not easy to describe it in one sentence. The best I can come up with is: an autobiography (and more) of the author who has played a key role in the development of the Internet as we know it today, partly by his involvement as member and chair of the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force).

Most chapters deal with his experience in his successive jobs. This is partly technical, yet reads as a novel about the birth of the Internet. However, the opening chapter describes a fictitious meeting of the IETF, putting the reader somewhat out of balance. Then comes a rather extensive family history going back several generations. A reader hoping to read about the Internet better skip this, because this is basically only of interest to the Carpenter family. The nostalgic description of Brian's own youth, is a pleasant read if you want to know how life was of a middle-class family in a post-war England: the first family car, first meccano, school days, entering Downing College and studying at Cambridge University,.... All this is well written and brings along forgotten memories if you have about the same age as the author. However, again, if you are essentially interested in the Internet, I can imagine that you consider the name of the horse of the family's milkman a bit of an overkill as introductory material. But along the road, also information about Turing and other initiations of computer science are skillfully interwoven.

Carpenter's professional career started at CERN in 1971 where he was in charge of controlling the proton beams which involved communication between computers. He tells us about the succession of computers, computer companies and people from different nationalities, and the emerging of the first (research) computer networks. Some of his collaborators and peers are considered to be founding fathers of the World Wide Web and the Internet. He stayed at CERN with an interruption of three years teaching in New Zealand. He grew into his job of controlling networks, first after his return to CERN and later he became fully involved while employed by IBM. A central role in his story is played by packet switching, an idea he attributes to Donald Davies at NPL. This means that data are split up in smaller packets that are sent independently over the net. Another recurrent issue is the TCP/IP concept. TCP and IP are internet protocol standards that describe how the packets should be formatted, addressed, routed, and collected in the end. Currently it has become a standard that has won the protocol war. This is the kind of problems Carpenter was involved with while he was chair of the IETF (2005-2007) and of which he carefully recounts the origin but also the sometimes hidden agendas of the people, of the companies and all the organizations involved.

Since 2007 the author is teaching at the University of Auckland. So most of the book is a round up of his previous jobs and his active involvement in the growth of the Internet. However, the story doesn't end abruptly. A protocol he has been intensively involved with was the development of IPv6. Internet addresses used to be stored in the IPv4 protocol as a structured 32 bit register. However, every device connected to the net needs a unique address and already in 1980 it was clear that 32 bits would eventually not be enough. A new protocol IPv6 extends the addresses to 128 bits, and after about 30 years of standardization and meetings, it is now gradually being implemented by Internet Service Providers (ISP). The network is organized as a structured network of networks of networks. This is the strength of the self-regulating Internet that can recover from node failures after events like 9/11 (2001), hurricane Katherina (2005), or the earthquake and tsunami in Fukushima (2011). The dot-com bubble in 2000 had financial impact hence also impact on employment, and therefore indirectly influenced the evolution. A final threat that is mentioned is that politicians, being afraid of digitized revolutions, start discussing about restricting the freedom of the Internet, known as 'Internet governance', which has been demonstrated e.g., in Syria and China. Phenomena like Wiki-leaks and Edward Snowden revealing the U.S. Intelligence program intercepting private Internet activity are not discussed by Carpenter. But this is more politics than engineering and Carpenter is an engineer and a self declared geek, and I can add that he is a talented story teller too.

Some might find the content not focussed or maybe a bit chaotic, but that is how the Internet came about, and Carpenter tells about real people, and these people are not only the internet engineers, but they also take sometimes difficult decisions, they have to solve a problem with the tools that are available to them, they may struggle with language problems, they sometimes have to move to different continents, they have a family, etc. Most of the text is about the technical development, but it is never overcomplicated. All terms are explained in a simple way. There are regularly interrupts by photographs, and inserts in the text giving further information or short side-excursions. There are a lot of abbreviations for networks, technical terms and organizations, which are all defined the first time they are used, but if you are not so familiar with this world, it may take a bit of effort to keep them available all the time. But if needed one can look them up using the index given at the end.

A. Bultheel
KU Leuven
Book details

This is and autobiographic account of the career of Brian Carpenter, who played a key role in the development of the Internet. He was chair of the IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force) in the period 2005-2007. Starting from a family history, he sketches his work as a network engineer while being employed by CERN, and later by IBM.



21.19 € (pbk)

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