Internet pioneer joins board of ICANN

1 Oct 2007

An Irishman whose strategic decision in the 1980s with the US National Science Foundation led to the creation of the internet as we know it today has been nominated to the Board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).

The former head of UCD’s Computer Services Department and founder of the IEDR, Dennis Jennings, while in charge of the supercomputing initiative at the US National Science Foundation in 1983, decided to take DARPA TCP/IP protocols out of the military world and into the university world.

This move paved the way for the internet that we know today.

Jennings is modest about his contribution to the internet: “If I didn’t do it someone else would have. But it is true that I made the decisions that led to the internet as we know it. I was the first person in the US to talk about an ‘internet’ and the first to create a network that incorporated all the other networks in the US at the time.”

The internet was originally born in the 1950s as the ARPA (Research Projects Agency) Net in response to the Soviet Union’s launch of the Sputnik. By the 1970s ARPANET was split in two — into a network for military called the MiliNet and as a network available only to a select few researchers.

In the 1970s Vint Cerf and Robert Kahn created the world’s first TCP/IP protocols but things really began moving in 1983 when Jennings made his decision to use these new protocols in the world’s first backbone and open up the internet to computer science departments in universities across the US.

“Our ambition was to link all 300 universities in the US to create a national centre for research. While it was ambitious at the time we had no concept that the internet would grow the way it has.

“I knew Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn and they understood that there could be many networks — radio, copper, leased line, and so on — and that no single network would reach everyone so a language was needed for data to transfer from one computer to another regardless of what network — that was TCP/IP.

“By the time I left the NSF in 1986 I had spent US$17m of US Government money but knew I had started something big,” Jennings recalls.

Jennings return to Ireland began a period of what he describes as frustration. “I could not talk about my experiences. Everything in Europe officially adhered to a different standard known as the Open Systems Interconnect (OSI). The problem was OSI didn’t work very well but no one wanted to listen.

“I call this period ‘the Protocol Wars’ — it was nasty, vicious, stupid and a waste of time. Eventually OSI disappeared.”

It was the early 1990s with the onset of the Mosaic browser and the European backbone network (Ebone) that TCP/IP began to appear on local networks in European universities.

“I was running computer services in UCD and I was on the board of HEAnet at the time. It took Europe a while to catch on but when it happened it happened fast as European researchers began to demand the same capabilities as their US counterparts.”

In 1992 Jennings was also instrumental in the creation of the .ie Domain Name Registry (IEDR) which he helped run until 1999 from UCD’s computer science department.

It was in the early Nineties that Jennings also became a technology investor, being involved in the start up of companies like Baltimore Technologies, Euristix, Ntera and WBT.

“In the Eighties we weren’t very confident in Ireland we saw everywhere else in the world as bigger and better. But my eyes were opened when I was in the US. I discovered everyone else was just like you and me and that we could take them on and be better.”

Jennings got a handsome return on his investment in Euristix in 1999 when it was bought by Fore Systems for US$81m. Fore Systems was then subsequently bought by GEC-Marconi for US$2.8bn.

While Jennings refuses to say the deal made him a wealthy man he admits he was able to take a career break from UCD and consider other opportunities, particularly investing in young technology companies as an angel investor.

Along with his friend Ray Norton, former head of Siemens Nixdorf in Ireland, he approached Dolmen Securities’ Ronan Reid about establishing a venture capital fund for commercialising university research and Fourth Level Ventures was born.

“We work very hard with companies before we invest in them. We’ve invested in 12 companies and at least half of those are looking very promising. One thing you learn as an investor is that if things could possibly go wrong they more than likely will. Also you learn that costs are certain, revenues uncertain.”

Jennings describes being nominated to the board of ICANN, which is responsible for international domain name policy, as a great honour for an Irishman.

He will take up the position at the end of October. He says a reason why he was selected out of 70 names put forward was his combination of internet, management and commercial experience.

“I’m a physicist by education but I’ve a lot of research experience, I’ve been involved in networking globally, setting up domain name registries, investing in technology companies and running venture capital firms. I suspect my profile is a little unusual. I guess the hope is to bring different point of view.”

Jennings says that one of the prime challenges facing ICANN is the introduction of International Domain Names (IDNs) other than in Latin script. “We need to create top-level domains that take into account Chinese and Arabic script. These have to be introduced and we need to ensure they are fairly competed for.”

He says the issue of IDNs will be important to international commerce. “If you’re a Western business, reaching out to a Chinese market of over 2 billion people, for example, will be important.

“IDN is one of the most important challenges facing ICANN over the next year or so,” Jennings concluded.

By John Kennedy