Traceroute Podcasts Trace the history of the Internet, layer by layer – the new stack

Grace Andrews

A motivated technologist with a multicultural focus and experience in managing, facilitating and implementing entrepreneurship training and operations, Grace has a keen interest in public relations, marketing, consulting and networking.

Did you know that the fiber cables that helped you get to this web page might be buried inside a pipeline that was originally built to transport oil and gas? Or were Cold War military researchers instrumental in eliciting the concepts that gave rise to those telegrams in the first place? What about the fact that people once tried to build their cell phone networks using analog modems?

Few people who use the Internet on a daily basis, from those creating GitHub repositories to those simply browsing Twitter, are aware of the wonderful backdrop of the physical infrastructure that makes it all work. The idea from Traceroute is to fix that. Traceroute is a new seven-episode podcast series that tells the story of how the essential infrastructure that makes the Internet possible emerged through the voices of those who built it and those who documented the story.

invention of interconnection

While today it is easy to consider that computers should talk to each other, the truth is that computers existed before computer networks. Someone must have an idea that machines can and should be interconnected before the Internet makes sense.

This person was an engineer working at the Pentagon, tasked with figuring out how the nascent digital computers that American scientists were making early in the Cold War could help in the struggle to contain communism. The engineer realized that simply building more computers wasn’t the only way to gain the upper hand. If individual computers could only talk to each other, their collective value would be greatly amplified.

Of course, embracing interconnectedness as a weapon of the Cold War was one thing. Expanding this concept to create a world in which billions of devices communicate is another thing. Episode 1 of Traceroute covers the entire story, from the hardware and software innovations needed to enable computer networks through legal and societal changes, such as the Communications Act of 1996, that were instrumental in the success of the Internet.

network decentralization

Another characteristic of the modern Internet that is easy to consider is the fact that it is decentralized. No single company or government controls where packets flow or the data they contain.

However, in the 1950s, if you were asked to describe the Internet of the future, such decentralization could be difficult to predict. Only a few organizations – including, above all, the US government – dominated the initiatives that led to the birth of the Internet. It would have been easy for these organizations to build an Internet that only met their needs and agendas, but they didn’t.

In Traceroute Episode 3, the networks that supported the early Internet grew more and more decentralized over time, in part because stakeholders realized that building the large, high-bandwidth networks that would enable the Internet to reach its full potential required a greater investment than any Another investment. The government, company or even a group of companies can deal on their own.

Hence the modern Internet, powered by neutral connection points and a fiber-optic infrastructure built by a diverse group of companies that collaborated, rather than compete, to create modern networks.

What should open source do with it?

Can you imagine a world in which every hardware vendor uses its own network protocol? Or a world where every web server and browser can only be used within a certain ecosystem, like Microsoft IIS that serves content only to Windows users, for example, or that Safari is only able to browse websites made by Apple?

We don’t live in such a world, but we would have lived in a version of it had it not been for the convergence of the Internet and free and open-source software during the 1990s – exactly the moment when the Internet began to enter the lives of people in general, not just computer scientists and researchers.

Open source platforms like Linux and the Apache web server, covered in Traceroute Episode 5, as well as open networking standards like TCP/IP, have helped create a world where anyone can serve content across the web to anyone else without worrying about any specific device or operating system which they use.

Although open source was rejected early on by naysayers who couldn’t understand how unpaid programmers without central guidance could build anything successful, let alone anything that gained widespread adoption, it ended up becoming a central method The Internet has evolved since the 1990s.

This is just a small part of the stories you’ll hear on Traceroute. Listen and subscribe to learn the full dramatic story of creating the Internet’s infrastructure: on Apple, Spotify and RSS.

For more creative content by the humans building and expanding the internet, follow Origins.dev, the home of Traceroute, at Twitterand GitHub and Instagram.

Finally, be sure to check out the Equinix Developers YouTube channel for an upcoming series of conversations with technologists on the topics covered at Traceroute.

Main image via ‘Pixabay’