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Pioneer's Behind-the-Scenes Toil Helped Bring Internet to Public

Technology: Jon Postel, who died this month, was part of a group that transformed project into international network.


Jon Postel became an Internet celebrity for his efforts during the last two years to transform a government-funded computer research project into an international, self-governing communications network.

But the soft-spoken computer scientist who headed the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority at USC's Information Sciences Institute for three decades made his most important contributions to the network behind the scenes in ways unrecognizable to most of the Internet's millions of users.

Postel's most high-profile project--finding a way to privatize the Internet--remained unfinished after he died at age 55 on Oct. 16 of complications from heart surgery. The Clinton administration last week tentatively endorsed a Postel-brokered plan to create a nonprofit Internet Corp. for Assigned Names and Numbers in Los Angeles that would take over many of the network's most important administrative functions.

"Jon was part of a core group of about 25 or 30 guys who helped make it happen initially at the nuts-and-bolts level," said Tony Rutkowski, a co-founder of the Internet Society in Reston, Va. "A lot has been made of IANA, but one could argue his more important, substantive contributions were in developing a lot of early protocols and continuing to be a critical reviewer . . . of Internet standards and technologies."

Task Became Increasingly Political

As the Internet spread out of university labs and onto corporate desktops, Postel's job of ensuring that each Internet address has a unique identifying number became increasingly political. After oversight of the network transferred from the National Science Foundation to the Commerce Department, Postel bristled when some of his technical decisions were second-guessed by policymakers.

"It really politicized the job in a way that was undesirable," said Postel's brother, Thomas, who designs circuit boards for his Sherman Oaks company, Mort Electronics.

"Jon was passionately devoted to doing the right thing despite the odds," said fellow Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, who met Postel when both were students at UCLA working on a precursor to today's Internet. "Many grenades were launched in the debates about the new IANA. Jon plowed ahead through the flak."

Postel's colleagues--including many who disagreed with him about the best way to set up a new Internet governing body--praised him as a first-class engineer.

But those skills did not necessarily carry over to the political arena. Postel often became impatient with people who hadn't done their technical homework. At times, he grew frustrated with government proposals that negated months of work from the technical community.

"Jon is as nonpolitical as you can get," said Jeff Williams, an executive of the Information Network Engineering Group in Dallas and a longtime friend of Postel's who offered an alternative plan for privatizing the Internet. "He was a first-rate technician. But when it came to managing people or policy, let's just say he wasn't real good at it, and he knew he wasn't. He made no bones about it."

That culture clash was most pronounced in February, when Postel conducted a test to see if the Internet's key directory-information servers could be redirected to get their information from IANA instead of from Network Solutions, the Herndon, Va., company that administers the domain name system. Critics accused Postel of trying to hijack the Internet. Ira Magaziner, Clinton's top Internet advisor, publicly scolded Postel for failing to give him advance notice of his server-switching intentions.

"A lot of people from the government said, 'How can IANA go and do this without asking me?' " Postel told The Times in February. "Well, IANA never asked them before about anything, so why would it occur to us to go and ask them this time?"

When critics sought to demonize Postel, he often responded with laughter. Sometimes he directed friends to articles and postings on the Internet that were particularly harsh.

A graduate of Van Nuys High School, Postel took his first computer classes at Valley Junior College in the 1960s. He transferred to UCLA, where his interest in computer networks blossomed and he earned bachelor's and master's degrees in engineering and a doctorate in computer science.

At UCLA, Postel joined a team of graduate students and professors who were helping to build the Arpanet, the precursor to the Internet. Among other duties, he began keeping track of Internet names and numbers on a piece of notebook paper. That function later grew into IANA.

E-Mail Protocols and Domain Names

After leaving UCLA, Postel continued his work at Mitre Corp. in McLean, Va., and at the Stanford Research Institute in Menlo Park, Calif. In 1977, he returned to Southern California to join USC's Information Sciences Institute.

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