Ralph Droms: My influence actually started back around 1989 when I started working with the IETF. I had an opportunity to lead the Dynamic Host Configuration Working Group which developed the Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol. We worked on that protocol and published it finally about 1995. It was picked up by Windows 95, picked up by Microsoft. It was integrated into the Microsoft Server. And so as Windows 95 came out, it revolutionized the way in which devices would connect to the Internet. Prior to that time, there was a lot of manual configuration that you’d have to go through. You’d have to type in a lot of addresses and subnet masks and other kinds of configuration information. All that was taken away by DHCP, done automatically. So you can just turn on your computer, plug it in, and it would get the DHCP information and take off.
A few years later, we did the same thing for IPv6. You’ve heard of IPv6, is the new version of the IP protocol. And we needed that same functionality for DHCPv6 so we worked on that protocol and in fact published it in 2003. In fact we just celebrated the tenth anniversary of the publication of DHCPv6 earlier this week.
So, DHCP’s really had a strong influence on the Internet. It really automated the process of getting devices connected to the Internet and it’s the thing that makes it possible to take your laptop at home, turn it on, connect wirelessly, and not have to do any configuration, any kind of work to get it to connect to the Internet. It just connects and starts working.
Intertitle: Describe one of the breakthrough moments or movements of the Internet in which you have been a key participant.
Droms: There are a couple related to this initial work on DHCP. The first is, to give you an idea of how things have changed over the years, the reason I took on the DHC Working Group is that the chair of the IETF at the time had been a grad student with me a few years before that at Penn State University. And so he and I were having a social visit, enjoying a social visit, and we got together and he told me about the IETF and told me about this configuration problem. And I thought gee, that sounds like a really interesting thing to do. So, I went to the first IETF meeting that I went to, it was in Cocoa Beach, 1989. We formed the DHC Working Group, and took off from there.
And the part of that that was really interesting to me was that we had collaboration amongst of all the major computer vendors, including both PC vendors and other larger system vendors…collaboration together to bring this protocol about. That is there was no competition about it, we sort of checked our vendor hats at the door and all worked together to make DHC come together. We had people from Microsoft, from Apple, from Sun Microsystems, from Cisco, and a variety of other vendors at the time, all working together to make this happen.
Intertitle: Describe the state of the Internet today with a weather analogy and explain why.
Droms: In my mind very unsettled. We’re at a time of huge expansion of the Internet outside of the kinds of Internet connections and devices that we’re familiar with. We’ve seen some of that over the past few years as we’ve moved from laptops, desktop computers, to smartphones and tablets and we’ve seen a big increase. Right now instead of a tablet and a laptop at home, you’ve got a tablet, two iPhones, and a desktop computer.
The next big expansion is going to be these very tiny little devices that we’ve come to call the Internet of Things. And I’m working on a project with some students at Purdue University to provide the IPv6 software that will run on these Internet of Things devices and we’re gonna go from four or five or a half dozen, maybe ten devices in a home, to perhaps twenty or a hundred devices in a home. And all of those devices will be directly accessible from the Internet.
And what’s unsettled is how we’re going to keep all of those devices safe and private and make sure that we have the appropriate security and access control in place so that we don’t have problems with people from the outside coming in and manipulating our heating systems or unlocking doors when we don’t want them to be unlocked. So there’s a lot of work to do in that area of security and that’s the part that’s unsettled right now. Security’s always the thing that we do last in IETF, and we really need to be in front of that with this particular expansion.
Intertitle: What are your greatest hopes and fears for the future of the Internet?
Droms: My hope for the Internet is that as we develop these new devices and we provide these additional capabilities to all of the things that operate in your home, in your car, in buildings, that we can provide an application development environment that’s open and freely available and that lots of people can participate in.
So just like the development of apps for the iPhone or for Android, we’ll have that same capability to develop those kinds of applications that can talk directly to the devices in the home, talk to things in your car, and bring them together using the innovation of lots of different people as opposed to just sort of expert programmers or people who understand and have built how the network works, we want to make it accessible to a much wider range of people.
And my big fear for the Internet is the security and privacy problems. We want to make sure that while we’re doing this we provide the right kind of security, and we provide the privacy that we need so that we’re not exposing information that we don’t want to expose.
Intertitle: Is there action that should be taken to ensure the best possible future?
Droms: Some of the specifications— The specifications that we’re developing in the IETF take security into consideration. I just finished working between Zigbee Alliance and the IETF on something called the Zigbee IP Specification. It’s a way of running IPv6 out to these Internet of Things devices. And we integrated security into that from the very beginning. So when the device comes up on this network, it first has to authenticate itself into the network. It has to say you know, “I’m allowed to connect to this network.” And at the same time it checks that the network is the network that it really wants to connect to. So it gets information back from the network that proves to this new device that yes, that’s a good networking and it allowed to attach to it. So once we have that authentication in place, then we can exchange information so that the device can communicate securely with all the other devices in the network, and it can communicate privately. It can encrypt its communication so that it can’t be listened in on and read by a third party watching the radio communication.
Intertitle: Is there anything else you would like to add?
Droms: One thing is we want to encourage as much participation in the IETF or in other places, and as much innovation as we can, so that we can take advantage of all of these new capabilities. We want to have the right programming environments, the right development environment, so people can really very easily take their ideas and put them in into practice really really quickly and get familiar with doing that at a very young age so that by the time you get to going to college you already have experience with building real computing devices, doing things with real computing devices, and you have a real passion and interest in building those kinds of tools and systems.