Happy Birthday TCP/IP

I love you even if nobody else does


Technology moves at an incredible pace and we are routinely used to the devices and gadgets we use becoming obsolete. What is today's must have smart phone is tomorrow's unwanted plastic brick. Many people are familiar with Moore's law that says that the number of transistors on a chip doubles every 18 months so it isn't really surprising that we can now fit in our pocket computers with the power that  not so many years ago would have filled  rooms if not buildings.

Its not just the computing power that is changing. Its also how technology works. Telephone calls used to require people to physically connect the callers together, these were replaced by electro-mechanical exchanges and then by fully digital ones. So it might seem surprising that every time you send a email,read a tweet or post a silly buzzfeed link on Facebook we are using a communication protocol that is celebrating its 40th anniversary and looks like it will be with us for a good while yet.

In May 1974 Vint Cerf and Bob Kahn published "A Protocol for Packet Network Intercommunication" that laid down the principles for a packet switching network protocol that could connect existing networks together. The protocol became known as TCP/IP and its ability to allow internetwork communication to take place enabled the ARPANET to grow into what is now the internet.

TCP/IP isn't really a single protocol but a whole suite of protocols that carries out different tasks. These include host addressing to identify unique devices on the networks whether it is a desktop computer(Remember those), laptop or smart phone ,routing of packets around the ever changing network and error handling for when things go wrong.

Adoption of TCP/IP took what might seem forever by todays standards. ARPANET didn't fully swap over to TCP/IP until 1983 and TCP/IP had reached version 4 the version that is still predominantly used today.

But as with most things in life  things don't stay still for long, even with 40 year old protocols. The internet grew vastly larger than anyone could ever imagine. Decisions that were taken in those early days turned out to be limiting factors today. IP the part that provides the unique addresses on the internet has all but used up its 4.3 Billion addresses and these are now only assigned very carefully. Fortunately IPv6 exists that has a possible 3.4×1038 address as well as other enhancements, enough I.P address to keep everybody on the planet with a connection for a  long time to come.

Its not just been 40 years of serious computer science. As an April fool's joke TCP/IP over Avian carrier was proposed and has actually been implemented by homing pigeons. An excellent interactive demonstration of how TCP/IP over any medium is TCP/IP over H2O


This post was never about a full technical breakdown of TCP/IP or computer networking. If you want that there a plenty of big thick books available. Nor was it a in depth historical look at the history of the internet, there are probably books about that as well.

The reason for writing it was I recently saw a tweet from @google announcing a celebration of the 40th Anniversary of TCP/IP.  I imagined that the main stream news sites would be all over it, articles,blog posts, top 10 lists etc..  but then nothing.

It makes me a little sad that all the internet seems to care about are headphone companies and celebrity misdemeanours.  This post is me shouting and cheering for the early internet pioneers and all those that came after and put so much hard work into creating this amazing thing we have now. Without  you the World Wibe Web Wouldn't have been possible and millions of  cute cat pictures would stay hidden.

Happy Birthday TCP/IP  you are looking good for  a 40 year old protocol heres to another 40.



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