As an Enterprise Architect, I help organizations transform through people, processes and technologies where I have had my fair share of dealing with technology infrastructure issues. However, in dealing with technology infrastructure, I have not paid that much attention to the underlying networks since I have always assumed that they will be there and always available. But after reading this article about Alohanet, I have come to realize that what we take for granted today is the result of many years of problem solving activities that involved universities, military and commercial organizations. Thus, I now have a greater appreciation for the importance of networks for individuals and organizations.
Typically in conversations with others, I have often indicated that the Internet came from ARPANET, which was a military-funded project. While this is correct but it diminishes the role the University of Hawaii played in laying the foundations of the Internet before it was even funded by the military. Prior to this article, I was not aware of the University of Hawaii’s contributions. What is interesting is that the Internet started with some humble beginnings in the 1960s where some people in the university were just trying to figure out how to share resources across the various university buildings that were spread across various Hawaiian Islands. To think that the foundations of Internet came from islands that were created by volcanic activity in the middle of the ocean millions of years ago is truly awe-inspiring.
The author does a great job of beginning with a story and then getting into the technical details of network communications. There are a couple of interesting points that the author talks about which I will relay below:
Firstly, the original goal of the ALOHA system was not to create this robust network of networks (i.e., the Internet) that every individual and organization can use but it was simply to see if radio communications could be used as opposed to conventional wire communications when needed. Interestingly, this was uncharted territory even for the experts who at the beginning did not realize the importance of radio broadcast channels versus multiple access capabilities and conventional point-to-point wire channels. In hindsight, going with radio broadcast channels was the right choice because otherwise a point-to-point wire channel would have cost too much from an infrastructure standpoint and would not scale as rapidly due to the time it would take to establish various point-to-point channels. In my experience, technologies that do scale quickly have three main ingredients (1) appropriate funding (2) a collaborative environment and (3) the level of too much technical sophistication is hidden from the end users. This is how I see the evolution of networks from its resource sharing to now the use of the Internet.
Secondly, the author refers to the “usual software delays” even when developing the network protocols. To me this seems to indicate that software delays are nothing new and although we pay a lot of attention to them today, they have been the ‘norm’ for a while. From a broader lens, this comment also illustrates the reliance of networking on the underlying software that is used to handle data packets. From this we can decipher that the relationship between network and networking software is a very close one.
Thirdly, the international efforts that involved research facilities and universities to show the potential of data networks is noteworthy. It shows the combined resolve of humans to test and solve problems collaboratively. I am not sure if this still happens today where instead of being protectionists about technologies, it is used by and for everyone. From a broader perspective, this also means that the military, research facilities and universities were looking at the exchange of data through broadcasted data packets going beyond just the national boundaries.
Fourthly, the advent of the microprocessors and its incorporation into terminal control was an important achievement that opened up the doors for commercial usage. One thing led to another, first a paper, then a book, then looking at various mediums for packet broadcasts and then the tipping point where Motorola introduced its unslotted ALOHA channel in the personal computer. Interestingly, all of these events happened in a decade and thus opened up new possibilities for not only the people involved but for everyone else.
Lastly, the alignment of strategy and theoretical realities is I believe to be the key to all of what was going on. It seems like the process of learning went both ways where strategy learned from execution that fed back into strategy. In today’s world this alignment is difficult to come by for many reasons. From a problem-solving perspective, this misalignment can result in delays, overruns and frustrations. I am sure the data packet broadcast journey had its own issues as well but that did not deter people from keeping the eye on the big picture. Where would we have been today if the misalignment continued and there was no resolution? I would argue that the Internet would still be developed, networks would be incrementally improved but perhaps the Internet revolution would at least be delayed.
In conclusion, this article showcases the human resolve to pile through uncharted technical territories, figuring things out as they went along and the resolve to accomplish the desired objectives. It also illustrates the happenstance of putting the ALOHA system on the list for Interface Message Processors (IMP). There were numerous moving parts but at the end sending of data packets through the broadcast channel was a success that paved the way for future innovations.