Cheers to the Pioneers

Author: James Shank

View off San Francisco Pier 1

With NANOG78 just wrapping up in beautiful San Francisco, I am reflecting on my time here and the great conversations that I have had here at number 78 and past conferences. One particular aspect of my conversations stands out – the human narrative of the history of the Internet, often conveyed through anecdotes, personal recollections, and told when old friends get together makes the art of Internet operations more vibrant.

I didn’t always understand this.

I recall a conversation I had with a close friend about 10 years ago. My friend was beginning his PhD and was working on a study of some social significance. He began researching the effects on people of something or other. He planned to sit down and interview people to understand their experience.

I remember asking him how he planned to quantify his results. I also remember being confused when he said he did not intend to do so! His interest was in recording them for posterity sake.

From an Engineering perspective, everything is about numbers and certain truths. The fluff around the edges is noise and of little importance. Math and hard science are the only valid paths to truth. This is how I am naturally wired.

It has taken me longer than I would like to admit to understand how much better life is when you understand the stories, the personal experiences, and the way, the why, the who, and the how of what we have today. And I am still learning this lesson.

You see, everything we have today has a story to go with the pursuit and the successes and the failures. And these stories are truly as significant as the technical accomplishments – if for no other reason than these stories breath life into the bits and the bytes.

I contend that the stories make the experience of being an operator and contributing to this grand social experiment we call the Internet all the more worthwhile.

How can one properly appreciate the development of critical protocols without knowing the story of the first draft being done on a napkin in a bar? Or gain appreciation for the passion and ideas behind some of the concepts in Internet governance without knowing that some of the early conversations were interrupted by the rising sun? And how can we appreciate how far we have come without knowing that allocations of numbers used to be done via a notebook kept in a pocket by the early and now departed gatekeeper Jon Postel. What about less savory stories, where grudges and personalities forged divisions?

I appreciate hearing these and other stories. I enjoy hearing them. I am motivated and inspired and humbled by them. And I would encourage the younger generations to get acquainted with these stories and first hand accounts at all available opportunities.

At NANOG and other similar events, I get the opportunity to sit down with some of those that built the Internet. Some of them are still active and influential in the direction of the Internet today. Some are more or less retired and only coming around to see their friends. Some don’t tend to come around anymore. And some of them have passed on. For those wanting to hear the original stories, our shared human mortality has already removed some of the key voices from which to hear first hand accounts.

Gustave Flaubert once said: “Our ignorance of history causes us to slander our own times. The ordinary person today lives better than a king did a century ago but is ungrateful!” I know there are flaws in the Internet, and I know there are flaws in the protocols. Some of these flaws, I know quite well.

I am grateful that all these holes exist, because the road before got paved – yes, with metaphorical potholes, and some craters… and possibly a tree or mountain in the way, but it got paved. These very holes are the opportunities that operators today have to become part of the story.

I attend conferences like NANOG78 as an advocate for Team Cymru and our mission. We seek to save and improve lives through our Internet security research. We do this in part by paving the way to greater access to the Internet, better advice, and clear guidance on security related to communications technologies used worldwide. We do this by exposing the means, methods, infrastructure and techniques of those that seek to suppress, oppress, harm, and pilfer the essence of humanity itself from others. We do this by helping to coordinate international efforts to fight malicious activity like Conficker, DNS Changer, Emotet, and many others. We do this through our community services that make best-in-breed threat intelligence available to operators all over the world. We do this by commercial partnerships that protect countless users every second of every day. The people behind Team Cymru do this because we are earnestly committed to saving and improving lives.

I know Team Cymru will be part of the story of the Internet for a long time to come. I hope that perhaps my personal experiences and contributions may add up to something worthy of retelling one day. Perhaps my portion will provide comedic relief to the narrative?

The Internet mostly works. Cheers to all those that are part of the story that made it so and make it so today. And thanks to the storytellers for sharing their experiences with me and others that are helping to now build upon their contributions.

Oh, and about my friend and the conversation that took place about 10 years ago… my friend couldn’t understand how I didn’t see the point of his qualitative research. I do believe I am beginning to understand.

About the Author:

James Shank has been with Team Cymru for more than nine years, contributing to several different efforts in a variety of ways. Lately, he’s been thinking about more efficient ways for defenders to share information, the trust group problem: how to get new people into the circle, and new tools and services to serve the global community.

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