Jon Postel

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Jonathan Bruce Postel (August 6, 1943 – October 16, 1998) made many significant contributions to the creation of the Internet, particularly in the area of standards. The Economist dubbed him the "God" of the Internet, and many still refer to him as the network's principal founder.[1] He is largely known for being the Editor of the RFC document series, and for managing the creation and allocation of Top Level Domains and IP addresses in the pre-ICANN era. When he passed away he was the Director of the University of Southern California's Information Sciences Institute's Computer Network Division; he led a staff of 70.[2] He pioneered many initiatives, which led to creation of the modern Internet and its governing body, ICANN; he established IANA, ICANN's precursor and the current Internet numbering authority.[3]

Mr. Postel died from complications related to heart surgery. It happened at a critical time in the history of the Internet's development, as the Clinton administration prepared to transfer oversight of the network to the organization he helped to build, ICANN.[4]

Beginnings of the Internet

While a graduate student and researcher at UCLA, Jon became one of the primary developers involved with the ARPANET.[5][6] After UCLA he briefly worked at Mitre and SRi, before coming to the ISI, where he spent the remaining 21 years of his career, attaining the position of Director.[7] As a researcher at ISI, Jon made many achievements regarding protocol design and verification, multimedia computing and communications, electronic commerce, the domain name system, and specific Internet protocols. These protocols include the TCP/IP, the SMTP, and the DNS.[8] While Mr. Postel was primarily a researcher he immediately recognized the need for organization to make the network of packet-switching into a medium of universal communication. Thus, he became the RFC Editor, who is responsible for issuing documents that specify how Internet computers interoperate, and founded IANA, the central coordination hub of the Internet.[9] Jon was known for doing the extremely important, but equally unglamorous, administrative and organizational work that was necessary to create and maintain the Internet. He was not one to seek out fame and glory, and much of his life he received neither, but he was trusted by those around him to manage some of the most important network developments and standards.[10][11]

The level of control he had over the burgeoning Internet was underscored months before he past away; he redirected half the Internet's 12 directory-information computers to his own system. Jon later told authorities that he was only testing how such a transition would play out.[12] He undertook the transfer at a time when the Internet community was debating the number of domain names and how they should be distributed, and his actions challenged the registrar monopoly of Network Solutions.[13] Despite this level of power and authority, Jon was a soft-spoken man who undertook his work in an open and transparent manner.

RFC Editor

Mr. Postel acted as the RFC Editor from its inception in April, 1969, until his death in 1998;[14] thus, he was in charge of documenting and facilitating the technical, engineering-based discussions that the Internet's pioneers were having. The term RFC was coined by Jon's friend and ARPANET colleauge, Steve Crocker; Steve did not know what to call his first technical proposal regarding the network's development, so he referred to it as a "Request For Comments". Postel led a small group of people who were expected to create consensus on hundreds of technical proposals that keep the Internet unified and functioning; the work he accomplished in this role continues to allow the Internet to flourish to this day.[15]

IANA

Jon voluntarily took on the task of founding and running IANA, the Internet's necessary numbering authority. He initially performed all numbering procedures and allocations manually. Thus, in Vint Cerf's words, he kept track of the names of all things in the networked universe.[16] IANA sprung from the expansion of the ARPANET, and the vision of breaking messages into packets, each carrying an address, and sending them over a network to find their own way to another computer; the packets would then be reassembled into the original message. For this system to function each computer would have to have an individual address that would both be intelligible and constant; Jon invented this numbering address scheme. His system also allowed the numbers that computers used for addresses to be translated into English, and thus servers could be accessed by going to a site; i.e. www.example.com, instead of typing in something like 124.345.253.196. As the early network was quite small, Jon initially kept track of all of the existent addresses on scraps of paper. As the network grew, a more formal organization was needed; and the USC's ISI was contracted by the U.S. government to manage the address system, Jon Postel was the founder and director. Thus, Jon was influential in establishing the protocols of the DNS, the roles of registries and registrars, and all necessary technical standards.[17]

Notable Roles

  • Founding RFC Editor, 1969 - 1998
  • Founder of IANA, The Internet Assigned Numbers Authority
  • Founding member of IAB, The Internet Architecture Board
  • Founding member & first individual member of ISOC[18]
  • ISOC Trustee, 1996 - 1998.[19]

Passing

Jon passed suddenly due to heart complications; he had a heart-valve replacement in 1991, but the replacement valve began to leak around October 7th, 1998. He had undergone surgery to fix the leaky valve, and was recovering from the surgery when he suddenly died. [20] His memorial was attended by his friends, and other Internet luminaries. Ira Magaziner read condolences sent from President Bill Clinton, which stated: "Though his life was too brief, Jon Postel made enormous contributions to the course of human progress. As a computer scientist, engineer and designer, he played a pivotal role in the creation of the ARPANET and its descendant, the Internet. With vision, intelligence and a rigorous insistence on simplicity and elegance of design, he helped to establish and manage the Internet’s growth and development. Because of his efforts, people across America and around the world have virtually unlimited access to a universe of knowledge”.[21] Ira also recalled a story in which Jon's unique appearance, with his long bushy hair mixing with his great beard for a wizard-like effect, caused him to to be held up by the secret service, and consequently he was late for his meeting with the president.

The Jon B. Postel Service Award

In recognition of the debt owed to Mr. Postel from the entire IT community, ISOC annually awards a prize in his honor. It is presented to an outstanding individual who has made important progress within the data communications industry. A $20,000 prize is associated with the award.[22]

Education

Jon was part of the group of students that founded UCLA's Computer Science department;[23] He received all of his degrees from UCLA; his B.Sc (1966), and his M.Sc. (1968) in Engineering, and his Ph.D (1974) in Computer Science.[24]

Fun Fact

Jon was notoriously casual, and was known to only ever wear sandals; however, when called in to help the U.S. Air Force with their computer systems, he was ordered to wear shoes before boarding their planes.[25]

References

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