40 years and going strong: Internet pioneer Merit celebrates and looks ahead

Former leader of Michigan research network reflects on organization's accomplishments.

Merit Network, the pioneering Michigan research network that played a key role in the development of the Internet, next week will celebrated its 40th anniversary. President Emeritus Eric Aupperle, a 32-year Merit veteran who served as director and president during the organization’s heyday in the mid-1980s and 1990s as the operator of the National Science Foundation’s NSFnet, spent some time reminiscing and looking ahead with Network World Managing Editor Jim Duffy.

NW: Can you highlight Merit’s key accomplishments over the past 40 years?

Aupperle: There are an awful lot… One of the very first would be to allow the student and faculty and staff of [Michigan’s] three major universities to share and access and use the computing resources of all three, and build a network to do that. Merit’s task was to build that network. In those days, it was not possible to go out and buy off-the-shelf router technology, as one can do today. So one of the first things we had to do was develop technology – essentially routers, although at that time we called them communications computers. We built three of them – one to be attached to each of the three mainframe systems and interconnected by phone lines. The design and development of that was certainly historic in terms of an accomplishment. The only other organization that did something similar in a comparable time frame was ARPA with ARPAnet and IMP technology.

In the mid-1970s, we added the ability to dial in directly to our network. In the early 1980s, we modified our software so we could also carry the then-DARPA protocols, the TCP/IP protocols. I think we were the only network that not only ran our own protocols but also the DARPA protocols.

Then probably the next major thing was when Merit teamed up with IBM and MCI in 1987 to bid on the NSFnet activity. We successfully won that bid and had a T-1 network up and running by mid-1988. We upgraded that to T-3 and then closed it down in 1995. Gopher had been developed and the Web had been developed but the spawning of the dramatic growth of the commercial Internet followed right on the heels of the NSFnet activity.

I’ve often commented to people that the National Science Foundation invested something on the order of $50 million in the networking activities associated with the NSFnet. Fifty million dollars -- when you consider the expenditures of the federal government -- the relative payoff is just incredible. A great return on investment.

NW: What do you think have been the biggest accomplishments in the industry over the last 40 years?

Aupperle: When we started in the late 1960s and early 1970s, we used teletype to VR terminals and we used punch paper tape to load the software used on our communications computers. The next major thing that happened was the development of personal computer technology, so one of the major developments early on was replacing teletypes and punch paper tape with PCs.

The development of the World Wide Web has just really transformed the way the Internet was used relative to the much more awkward and arcane procedures that were involved before.

I think probably the two most significant developments over that period of time were the cost and improvement of PCs and their abilities to have, over time, much more memory and improved use of technology – going from floppy disks to DVDs. And then the related software developments, the Web being probably the most dramatic of those.

It would have been impossible to envision how much has been accomplished in such a relatively short period of time.

NW: What are the most interesting projects that Merit has under way right now?

Aupperle: After the NSF activity, Merit reverted back to its original role of providing services within the state of Michigan. I think one of the ongoing activities [that’s] an outgrowth of the NSFnet area is Merit’s involvement with NANOG [North American Network Operators' Group]. Merit is the sponsor and organizer for those activities and I think that remains a very valuable contribution.

From a state of Michigan point of view, Merit is by far the largest ISP, providing network connectivity to almost all of the higher-educational community in the state. So it has a very major role in providing the network infrastructure to the educational component in Michigan, including access to Internet2. It also provides connectivity to many other organizations – elements of the state government and some municipal and county governments, plus libraries.

NW: How has Merit set the standard for other state research networks?

Aupperle: One of the things that has been unique about Merit is we started in the late 1960s and it’s still in existence now. Very few other state networks have evolved in quite that way. And Merit has also been much more innovative in use of technology and operation.

NW: Do you see the role of state research networks changing over the next 10, 15 or 20 years?

Aupperle: There was quite a change following the NSFnet era – the number of the state or regional networks that were formed or in existence have evolved to rather different entities. Some have decided to go commercial, some have gone out of existence and new ones formed. So I think that trend will continue to happen. It’s hard to say in 10 or 20 or more years what will really happen to Merit. But I believe, at least for the next few years, Merit will continue pretty much on the same path that it currently has. It has strong support from its board of directors.

NW: What do you think are the key challenges facing the Internet industry right now?

Aupperle: Certainly some of the concerns with respect to security. Malicious use of the network, the amount of spam traffic, phishing and other related problems…. I don’t see any easy solutions to those issues and I think that will be an ongoing challenge for folks to deal with.

NW: Does Merit have a position or take a stand on any of the burning issue of today, like net neutrality or Internet regulation, or whether Internet services should be treated as information or telecom services?

Aupperle: I know one of the issues that Merit staff are very much concerned about is complying with the CALEA requirements and how to deal with those. And that’s not simple because the actual requirements are not spelled out in considerable detail. That is an issue I know that the staff is actively working on.

One of the other characteristics of [Merit as a nonprofit organization is that it is] pretty careful about not getting too active in lobbying or taking strong positions on major issues. So I’m not aware of any major effort on Merit’s part for or against 'Net neutrality.

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