How the internet came to CERN

CERN computer scientist François Flückiger (Image: Claudia Marcelloni)

It is with both great happiness and huge pride that I was informed of my selection for induction into the Internet Hall of Fame 2013, along with 31 other inductees.

It is also with great humility: I wish to believe I deserve it, though I realize how modest my contribution has been when I consider the company I will be joining, living legends such as Vint Cerf and Richard Stallman. But this award goes also to CERN and to those who worked with me on building the CERN external network since the early 80s, including Brian Carpenter, Giorgio Heiman, Jean-Michel Jouanigot and Olivier Martin.

CERN is famous for its invention of the web but CERN’s contribution to the internet infrastructure, central for the internet’s development, is less well known.

In January 1983, the CERN networking group was created, formed of two sections: Internal and External Networking. I was tasked to run the latter. At that time the CERN external network amounted to two minuscule leased lines, one to Rutherford, the other to Saclay. Eight years later, CERN had become the centre of an enormous star-shaped network, the largest internet hub in Europe. Just imagine: in 1991, 80% of the internet capacity in Europe for international traffic was installed at CERN, in building 513! It is no surprise that the performance of Tim Berners-Lee’s first web server impressed the world: it was at the heart of the European internet, just a few hops from most destinations.

How did we get there?

Detail of a 1991 schema showing leased networking lines with CERN shown in the centre - see full version (Image: CERN)

In 1984, the major HEP centres in Europe started to set up direct links to CERN and soon physics centres in other regions requested connections as well. Networks grow like crystals: when one hub starts crystallizing, everyone wants to connect to it, as everyone prefers to be just one hop away from the heart. Therefore, non-HEP scientific centres started to set up links to CERN, often serving as relays to other domestic HEP sites.

But it was not that easy! The communication protocols war raged in Europe from 1983 to 1992. Most governments opposed internet technology, backing instead nascent ISO networking standards. CERN’s decision to migrate to internet was heavily criticized by TCP/IP opponents.

I had the honour of convening in Geneva the very first meeting of the Coordinating Committee for Intercontinental Research Network (CCIRN) in May 1988. This committee was the first attempt to harmonize the inter-regional operation of the emerging world-wide research network.

The second meeting took place in October 1988 at a summer resort in Western Virginia, sad and grey this particular autumn. The Americans turned up in force. Bill Bostwick, from the Department of Energy was the Chairman, Barry Leiner from the Department of Defense and Vint Cerf were present. The European representatives were thin on the ground: a German and British representative plus myself. At that time, the European policy was largely opposed to internet technology, hence the lack of enthusiasm to send participants to an internet-focused event.

Towards the end of the meeting the Americans, led by Vint Cerf, became insistent: “It is essential that you, the Europeans, set up a structure to allocate internet addresses in Europe. It is not good we keep doing it for you.” My two colleagues did not seem too concerned, replying they did not foresee any development of the internet. I reassured our American colleagues, replying that there were indeed people in Europe that believed in IP.

On my return from West Virginia, Olivier Martin and I called a meeting at CERN with the interested parties from Europe to promote the idea of a structure to coordinate IP networks in Europe, and in particular the attribution of addresses. Time was pressing.

This founding meeting took place at CERN in December 1988, in a small office of building 600. Six people participated: Rob Blockzijl from Nikhef, Mats Brunel from SUNet, Daniel Karrenberg from EUNet, Enzo Valente from INFN, Olivier Martin and myself from CERN.

Six months later, the first meeting of RIPE (Réseaux IP Européens) took place in Amsterdam. 25 years later, RIPE is still the authority that allocates Internet resources and services not only in Europe, but also in the Middle East and parts of Central Asia.

A leader of the struggle to promote the Internet in Europe, Francois Flückiger convened in November 1988 the founding meeting that led to the creation of Réseaux IP Européens (RIPE), the nonprofit European organization that conducts the technical coordination of the infrastructure of the Internet. He contributed in 1992 to the creation of Ebone (the pan-European Internet backbone) by drafting the Memorandum of Understanding which laid down its basic principles, and arranged in that same year for the European Organization for Nuclear Research (CERN) to become a founding member of the Internet Society (ISOC). Flückiger also drafted popular cartoons, some of them exemplifying the ineffectiveness of battling against the Internet. He chaired the INET’s 1988, 2001 and 2002 program committees. A graduate of the Ecole Supérieure d'Electricité, Flückiger holds an MBA from the Enterprise Administration Institute in Paris. He is a member of the ISOC Advisory Council and of the W3C Advisory Committee, a lecturer at the University of Geneva and the author of the textbook "Understanding Networked Multimedia” and more than 80 articles. Today, he is CERN’s Knowledge Transfer Officer for Information Technologies and the Director of its School of Computing. At CERN his responsibilities have included the management of its World Wide Web team after the departure of Web inventor Tim Berners-Lee.