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Interview: Vint Cerf: Concerns over packets and politics

Interview: Vint Cerf: Concerns over packets and politics

For a technologist, Vint Cerf is plenty opinionated. In a telephone interview, Cerf -- often called 'the father of the Internet' for his co-authoring of the formidable Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) -- fielded questions on an array of topics, including his disdain for the current U.S. administration's handling of science and technology issues. He's one of a few IT executives of this caliber willing to attach their names publicly to a political cause.

For a technologist, Vint Cerf is plenty opinionated. In a telephone interview, Cerf -- often called "the father of the Internet" for his co-authoring of the formidable Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol (TCP/IP) -- fielded questions on an array of topics, including his disdain for the current U.S. administration's handling of science and technology issues. He's one of a few IT executives of this caliber willing to attach their names publicly to a political cause. In his current function as senior vice president of technology strategy at MCI Inc., Cerf still has his finger on the pulse of the Net. He's concerned about the rise of cyberattacks and encourages everyone to scream at developers of buggy software. He's confident that IPv6 (Internet Protocol version 6) will come soon if for no other reason than China alone could someday devour more than a third of the Net addresses currently available with IPv4. And he prefers to avoid contributing to what he calls "the current hype" over VOIP (voice over IP) because, in his opinion, this new service is just one of many available via the Internet, whereas telephony is the main service in circuit-switched public networks.

IDGNS: If you look at all the cyberattacks these days, what scares you most?

Cerf: The harder attacks are not the subtle "I'm going to break into your operating system attack" but rather the DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attacks where somebody has already broken into 100,000 PCs sitting on totally unprotected DSL (Digital Subscriber Line) and cable modems and has all of them launch back at the target. This is really hard to defend against. We're now deploying systems that will detect these kinds of attacks and try to divert them before they get into our customers' access lines. Because when these DDOS attacks swamp access lines, then filtering at the other end doesn't help.

IDGNS: Some experts are truly concerned about cyberattacks on critical infrastructures, such as electricity and gas networks. How concerned are you about such terrorist threats?

Cerf: The purpose behind terrorism is to instill fear in people -- the fear that electrical power, for instance, will be taken away or the transportation system will be taken down. If the threat is credible, it can be used as a weapon to coerce people into doing things. So one of the most important things we can do in the industry is make sure that the threat of cyberattacks is minimized as much as possible. This understanding has driven us -- as well as our competitors and colleagues -- to build an increasing amount of robustness into our Internet implementations. Similarly the VPNs (virtual private networks) we construct for customers are increasingly resilient and redundant and resistant to various forms of attacks.

IDGNS: But attacks are still rampant, so what's missing?

Cerf: None of these things are perfect, as you can see from the long list of bugs that our friends at Microsoft (Corp.) and elsewhere pump out. Even if we go to the trouble to protect the network itself, what about the hosts? If these aren't adequately protected, they're vulnerable, and that's bad. So the monkey is on the operating system provider's back to produce much more robust and resistant operating systems.

IDGNS: And how are these companies doing on that front?

Cerf: Bill Gates (Microsoft chairman and chief software architect) has taken that up as an important mantra in his own company several years ago. Yet we still see continuous reports of bugs. It's scary that we keep finding them and that not everyone can update in accordance with the patch schedule. At some point, we all need to stand up and scream at the software companies: "How dare you release an operating system with these kinds of security flaws!" But this outcry hasn't happened yet.

IDGNS: How is work progressing on the next-generation IPv6?

Cerf: It's actually moving along. After having sat in a standardized state for 10 years, I now see some significant momentum. At MCI, we have made a full commitment to implement and deploy IPv6 during 2005. We have already been using it for a long time in the private academic vBNS (very high performance Backbone Network Service) system.

IDGNS: Who else is pushing hard for IPv6?

Cerf: There's a tremendous amount of energy in Japan and, increasingly, in China. You can understand why the Chinese are pushing IPv6. Their Internet usage is growing very rapidly, and even they can do the math: If everyone in China needed an IPv4 address -- just one -- this country would use up one third of the entire public IP address space. And if we ran out of IPv4 address space, it would be kind of like running out of oil.

IDGNS: What are the challenges of rolling out IPv6?

Cerf: It has to run in parallel with IPv4. We're going to have years of running both protocols at the same time. So that means double routing tables and more memory space for these tables and routing protocols and things like that. It's not going to be simple but we really need to do it.

IDGNS: Is the Internet any better today than at the height of the Net bubble?

Cerf: Yes, and for two different reasons. First of all, in terms of investment in Internet-related developments, venture capitalists -- once burned -- are now very cautious and are investing in areas that actually make business sense. Their determination to create equity value has been, in part, supplanted by the understanding that if they do it wrong, they lose all their money. That's good. This means that more care is taken with regard to how money is invested and which start-ups get the attention.

Second, despite the dot-boom and dot-bust, network capacity and connectivity continue to grow. There is an underlying, fundamental reliance on the Internet, which continues to grow in the number of users, country penetration and both fixed and wireless broadband access. Grid computing will also lead to more intercorporate online interaction, driving the continued growth and dependence on the public Internet.

IDGNS: What about VOIP?

Cerf: Yes, this is really happening. What is special about VOIP is that it's just another thing you can do on the Internet, whereas it is the only thing -- or nearly the only thing with the exception of the dial-up modem and fax -- that you can do on the public switched telephone network. This means that over time, any business model heavily reliant on generating revenue from simple voice calls must be carefully -- and maybe even quickly -- rethought. At MCI, we're committed to putting VOIP up virtually everywhere. However, we recognize at the same time that this development will have a major impact on our business model. If you ask me whether we're cannibalizing our historical business, my answer is yes. But if somebody is going to each our lunch, we want it to be us.

IDGNS: How do you envision the Internet by 2010?

Cerf: Today we have 1 billion users on the Net. By 2010 we will have maybe 2 billion. I sincerely hope that we and everyone else in the industry will have deployed IPv6 by then and that penetration will be between 75 and 80 percent. I expect that the entertainment industry will have gone through its own convulsion in the same way the telecom industry will have gone through its. VOIP will be rampant everywhere and conventional telephony will only be visible at the edges of the network, presumably only in a wireless mode. But by 2010, wireless telephone services will probably be controlled the same way as VOIP is -- namely through SIP (Session Initiation Protocol). Voice content may continue to be transported through the older GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications), but the control system will look like SIP. By 2010, most system architectures will be Internet-oriented.

IDGNS: And how pervasive will the Net be by the end of this decade?

Cerf: I expect to see a lot of household appliances on the Net by 2010, as well as autos and other mobile devices. We'll see many new businesses growing up around the ability to control appliances and use geographically indexed databases. Movie distribution may very well have migrated fully to digital form by then, making a huge dent in the need to print film and physically distribute content.

IDGNS: You are a founding member of "Scientists and Engineers for Change," a high-profile political group including 10 Nobel laureates and a former National Science Foundation director. The group is highly critical of U.S. President George Bush and his administration's handling of science, particularly in the area of stem cell research. How concerned should voters be?

Cerf: There has been a substitution of ideology for fact and scientific and engineering data in this administration. I find that alarming, frankly. We live in a very complex world. If you need to understand it to make policy, you should turn first to people who are scientists and engineers for factual information. If you're not willing to accept that information and base all your decisions on ideological principles, you run the risk of steering in directions that are not realistic. My reaction to a lot of the current situation that we're in is based in part on a serious concern that the present administration's course ignores reality.

IDGNS: Why, in your opinion, has President Bush decided not to listen to technology experts?

Cerf: I can't read the man's mind, so I don't know. Some people think that his ideological views cover everything. If you read some of the comments from scientists on Web sites sponsored by the government, there is deep concern that these comments have been edited according to ideological perspectives -- they've been given the litmus test, so to speak. I consider these indicators to be pretty alarming.

IDGNS: Is Bush's major challenger John F. Kerry any different?

Cerf: Kerry shows substantially more willingness to take input from these quarters. He has been very clear about his intent that if elected, he will position the science advisor where this position has been in the past. He has made a point of paying attention to scientific input. His comments on stem cell research, for example, illustrate this. Another four years of the present administration doesn't look wise. Kerry and (his vice presidential running mate) John Edwards are prepared to steer in a course that seems to be more capable of taking input, forming judgments and, in particular, changing the course when necessary. -- IDG News Service

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