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.
Internet Hall of Fame profile