Intertitle: Briefly describe your most vital con­tri­bu­tions; what led you to become an Internet Hall of Fame member?

Douglas Comer: First I did IP tun­nel­ing back in the ear­ly days of the Internet. I put IP over X.25. It was unusu­al because at the time, peo­ple weren’t doing tun­nel­ing, so it was a new idea. 

Second, before there were ISPs or the NSFNET, I hooked up a lit­tle net­work and I got three schools, Williams College in Massachusetts and Boston University and Rice University in Houston, Texas, and I con­nect­ed them through Purdue to the Internet. 

And third, the most sig­nif­i­cant thing was I wrote a series of books that explained the prin­ci­ples and the pro­to­cols and the archi­tec­ture of the Internet that became run­away bestsellers. 

Intertitle: What are the biggest chal­lenges you had to over­come to achieve suc­cess; how did you over­come them? Was there an aha” moment, a peri­od of impact or a break­through real­iza­tion or a steady flow?

Comer: For the dif­fi­cul­ty I think the hard part was that every­thing was new at the same time. There was new hard­ware. There were new pro­to­cols. There was a new imple­men­ta­tion of pro­to­cols in the oper­at­ing sys­tem. It was actu­al­ly dif­fi­cult to fig­ure out how to build pro­to­col soft­ware in the oper­at­ing sys­tems. We had new appli­ca­tions. Things that…you have to under­stand at the time peo­ple did­n’t use net­works. So every­thing was being done at the same time. You could­n’t just go to the store and buy hard­ware, you could­n’t ask peo­ple how should an appli­ca­tion real­ly work. So, fig­ur­ing it out was the hard part. 

Intertitle: Which peo­ple, expe­ri­ences or devel­op­ments were most cru­cial in your pro­fes­sion­al suc­cess and its impact?

Comer: Well at the time, it seemed to me that every­thing I’d ever done sort of con­tributed to this. As an under­grad I was a physics and math major. We did­n’t have com­put­er sci­ence. So when peo­ple start­ed talk­ing about elec­tri­cal inter­fer­ence and why we need­ed pro­to­cols to han­dle it, it made per­fect sense to me. I under­stood what elec­tro­mag­net­ic ener­gy was and how inter­fer­ence hap­pened. I was a math major as well so when it came time to ana­lyze pro­to­cols, that was easy. You know, you could just apply all the log­ic that you learned in math. 

I had gone to grad school in com­put­er sci­ence. I had become real­ly good pro­gram­mer. So I had writ­ten sys­tems pro­grams. I had learned C, and that was some­thing unusu­al at the time. So I could write pro­to­cols in the oper­at­ing system. 

And I guess the last thing was my hob­by was elec­tron­ics. And you know, as a kid I fig­ured out how to build lit­tle cir­cuits. And that came in handy because as I said ear­li­er, all the hard­ware was brand new. And at one point, we had to hook up a brand new com­put­er to the Internet stuff, we had to hook it up to the ARPANET, and we did­n’t have an inter­face card. You could­n’t just go to the store and buy an inter­face card. 

So we end­ed up get­ting a used com­put­er, hook­ing up our own lit­tle wires and sol­der­ing them. So a grad stu­dent and I sat there sol­der­ing wires. Which, that was great because there were very few com­put­er sci­en­tist who would ever sol­der wires. 

So as I say, it seemed like every­thing just came togeth­er. It was…you know, my entire back­ground was just the right stuff. 

Intertitle: What are your hopes for the future Internet? Your fears? What action should be tak­en now for the best future?

Comer: In terms of hopes I would say I have expec­ta­tions that things will con­tin­ue to get bet­ter in terms of tech­nol­o­gy. We will have faster, more reli­able, ubiq­ui­tous Internet every­where, all the time. The cop­per infra­struc­ture will be replaced by fiber optics and wire­less. And things will become much bet­ter than they are now. So it’s not just hopes, I really…I real­ly expect it to happen. 

In terms of fears. I think the biggest fear I have is that we’re caught in a hor­ri­ble arms race. That right now, we have com­pa­nies try­ing to build secure soft­ware, secure hard­ware, secure prod­ucts. And we have lots of groups try­ing to break secu­ri­ty. Figure out how to break in, fig­ure out— Even the secu­ri­ty research com­mu­ni­ty is in the busi­ness of break­ing in. 

And I have this ter­ri­ble fear that it’s like the old days in the Wild West, you know. The banks would build more con­crete in their walls. They were try­ing to pro­tect the bank hard­er. Harder steel bars to keep peo­ple out. And the ban­dits would just use more dyna­mite. It’s always true that it’s eas­i­er to break things than to make them secure. So, as long as we have just an arms race, the bad guys will keep winning. 

Intertitle: What advice do you have for the next gen­er­a­tion work­ing in your field?

Comer: Let’s see, for research there’s a famous com­put­er sci­en­tist Dijkstra who said all you have to do is find what you can do bet­ter than any­body else, and do only that. Stick to the stuff that you do best. A lot of peo­ple advise every young per­son Work on your weak­ness­es.” I always advise them, Build on your strengths.” Find out what your tal­ents are and build on it. And ignore peo­ple that say you’re not good at this and you should spend time work­ing on that. Go for the strength. 

The oth­er thing I’ll say, and I’ve told many young peo­ple this, is even well-meaning senior peo­ple can give you some very bad advice. When I start­ed the Internet project, two indi­vid­u­als in par­tic­u­lar who sep­a­rate­ly took me aside— These were senior fac­ul­ty. I was an assis­tant pro­fes­sor, I was just start­ing out. And they very father­ly said, You’re throw­ing your career away. This is not a good move for you. You should get out of this.” One of them said point blank, Networking has nev­er been part of com­put­er sci­ence, and nev­er will be. No one will be inter­est­ed in this.”

Of course they were dead wrong and in ret­ro­spect it all seems sil­ly. But they were dead­ly seri­ous. And they were not mean, or being ugly. They were giv­ing me advice that they thought from their expe­ri­ence was sound advice. So I say if you’re a young per­son, if you’re start­ing out, and you’re blaz­ing a trail, senior peo­ple in your area will not be able to under­stand or appre­ci­ate the sig­nif­i­cance of what you’re doing. It’ll just seem com­plete­ly foreign. 

Intertitle: What has sur­prised you most about the Internet as it has developed?

Comer: I nev­er antic­i­pat­ed bad play­ers. I think all of us in the begin­ning were so intent on build­ing the tech­nol­o­gy and mak­ing it work, that we did­n’t assume there would be bad peo­ple using the Internet. So when spam appeared, that both­ered me. And then when peo­ple start­ed using the Internet to do crimes I guess we all knew, any new tech­nol­o­gy will be used by crim­i­nals. But still, it just seemed completely…you know, out of the range of what I was think­ing. So, that was a huge surprise. 

Intertitle: What are the most pos­i­tive Internet trends emerg­ing today? What are the most wor­ri­some chal­lenges today?

Comer: More peo­ple are get­ting more access to the Internet. And the things that I dis­like most… I dis­like and I fear the way social net­works have pro­gressed. We have lit­tle groups and they rein­force their own…let me say prej­u­dices.” They want to believe some­thing. They find twen­ty oth­er peo­ple who believe it. And they stick in there clique and they don’t lis­ten to any­body else. It’s self-reinforcing and you can get some real­ly bad things going on just because it sounds like every­one you talk to believes it. So, that’s worrisome. 

Intertitle: How do you hope to see the Internet evolve?

Comer: We real­ly can’t tell how things are going to evolve. You can’t pre­dict, in fact I don’t think any of us in the ear­ly days could ever have pre­dict­ed any­thing like what we have now. The good, the bad, and the ugly. The won­der­ful tech­nol­o­gy. The abil­i­ty to go to a store, buy a device and get on the Internet in ten sec­onds. That was all…I don’t know, sci­ence fic­tion of the time. Or it seemed like sci­ence fic­tion. So we could­n’t have pre­dict­ed that. And I don’t think I can pre­dict where things are going. I hope that we will all even­tu­al­ly adopt the Internet as a util­i­ty and reg­u­late its use the way real util­i­ties are reg­u­lat­ed now.

Further Reference

Internet Hall of Fame pro­file