How a mild-mannered Canadian techno-wizard kept cyberspace free

It was on a long, quiet flight from Japan to San Francisco in June of 1992, that Steve Deering, a Canadian computer scientist, first figured out how to save the Internet. It was a bit cramped in the coach section of the airplane, but Deering didn’t mind.  Bespectacled, bearded, with sandy-coloured hair, he is a famously unassuming character in the computer business, never mind the occasional Hawaiian print shirt.  He was working at the time for Xerox Corp., at its prestigious Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in the heart of California’s Silicon Valley.  But on this night, he was returning from the first annual meeting of the Internet Society, a group of organizations and individuals interested in the Internet.  Deering was a member of the Society’s Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), a collection of scientists and engineers from academic and industry that works on ways to help the Internet evolve and that fixes any technical problems that arise.  At the time, they had a whopper on their hands.

The Internet was in danger of collapsing under its own weight.  The number of users was approaching 4 million and was doubling every year, with no sign of slowing down.  Ordinary people, who had been hearing for years about the coming Information Superhighway, had apparently decided that the Internet was it.  The problem was that the Internet Protocol (IP), the lakebed of electronic rules that all those users were skating over when they surfed the Net or sent e-mail, wouldn’t be able to handle much more.  Members of the IETF didn’t know exactly when the Internet would collapse, but they knew how.  It was going to run out of the electronic ‘addresses’ that were key to sending information. Businesses were going to want to send voice and video over the Internet, and so different levels of service would soon be needed.  In its current configuration, the IP could cope,but it was slow and cumbersome and it would only get worse as more users signed on.  People might get frustrated enough to turn to something else.

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