Giuseppe Amedeo 'Joy' Marino
  • Looking back, in my professional life I have many times found myself in the middle of a dichotomy, often fruitful, sometimes transitory and unstable.
  • My first experience of the UNIX operating system was in 1981, and it was then I began to vacillate between the researcher who deals with 'deep' subjects (concurrent programming, parallel systems) and the community geek who would sell his soul in the laboratory to fine tune the tools and, by extension, the environment, in which all other researchers can work profitably.
  • My first real experience with the world of networks - ("networks" is a compliment when talking of connecting some minicomputers at the speed of a serial terminal ..1-10 kbit/sec) - was with one of the first releases of "Berkeley UNIX", perhaps the 4.1 BSD. Access to the operating system code was exciting for two reasons: to understand how the arcane mechanisms and perverse networking protocols functioned, but also to debunk the cosy club of high-profile Californian programmers, who wrote code just as mediocre as other programmers'. This gave me an excuse to participate in one of the very first conferences of the European association of UNIX users (EUUG, founded in 1981), in Dublin in 1983.
  • It was then I understood the distance there is between the "guild" of UNIX programmers and the world of academia. The former had their own scientific and cultural dignity, because their work was truly at the boundaries of IT knowledge, but they did it with a collaborative spirit, which we still find now in the Open Source community, in sharp contrast with the Hobbesian world ("war of all against all") of academia (especially in Italy). I began to sign my articles and reports for the Unix environment as "Joy Marino", as they would be largely ignored in an academic career.
  • After a couple of years I collaborated in the founding of the Italian version of the association of UNIX users, i2u, and here found another dichotomy, sometimes salutary, but in the medium term, dangerous. Many of the founders of i2u, unlike other EUUG members, had an industrial rather than university background. At that time Olivetti and AT&T were partners - and UNIX was one of the traded goods - but also Sperry/UNIVAC (soon to become UNISYS), Siemens, IBM, and the newly founded SUN saw the importance of pre-competitive collaboration through an association of users. An analogous situation existed in the US, where there was an industrial type association (/user/group) and one purely academic (USENIX), which just about managed to hold conferences, not joint, but at least in the same town and on the same days. I treaded water in the middle, sometimes feeling like a yo-yo, sometimes seeing the undoubted advantages that siding with the industrial faction might bring.
  • The next time I encountered Yin and Yang was 2 years later in 1987. Participating in the European conferences of EUUG I sneaked into a very informal meeting of the group co-ordinating network connections that EUUG supported and sponsored; the name "EUnet" began to be heard, but it was still a vague, undefined entity.
  • In this way I discovered that another group of enthusiasts, from all over Europe, had taken on the task, often purely on a voluntary basis, of maintaining and operating a "network" of connections among UNIX computers via modem, which was absolutely rudimentary and unreliable, and yet they managed to channel large quantities of email both within the community of users (Unix, in Europe and the US) but also with other types of networks all over the world, through "gateways" at application level, which translated the obscure and incompatible mail addresses that every technological family had adopted.
  • This was another "magic circle" of initiates whose dedication to the cause did not baulk at all-nighters checking that the modems and circuits were working properly, lest their precious email be delayed by a few hours (much of the system functioning was thanks to the efforts of a group we jokingly called the "Dutch mafia": technicians mostly from CWI in Amsterdam. Funny, because during the course of its evolution EUnet would have contact, of another kind, with the Russian mafiathe real one...).
  • Italy had remained somewhat on the sidelines of this new adventure and, together with an enterprising student (Alessandro Berni, who had contacted me via email) on the one hand and the support of the industrial partners in i2u on the other, I took on the job of "running" the network, once again thinking of the tools and environment in which others could work better.
  • Alessandro's email had travelled halfway round the world to get to me, passing from the IBM BITNET mainframe network to UNIX, and I then discovered it had been sent from the Computing Centre of my university…I have no idea how he managed to get it through.
  • The network grew exponentially, simply due to the increase in use and number of users. At the end of the 80s the principal junction lines had become dedicated data lines and no longer phone circuits, the costs incurred - and shared by all - were considerable, comparable to those paid by EUUG and by national associations put together. While still a not-for-profit 'operation' the service provided by the network had become indispensable to users and a full time job to those running it. A technological upgrade was called for.
  • In Europe at the time the EU, or EC as it was then, sponsored initiatives to establish networks of computers, provided that they used "standard" protocols, the magic word being the palindrome ISO-OSI. In fact this was a showdown, another dichotomy, between the network model adopted in the US (ARPANET, NSFnet, TCP/IP, in one word: "Internet") and the European Community, both the political side and, more especially, the academic one, affected by the NIH syndrome (the first time an official EC document mentioned the word "Internet" was in the Bangelman Report…1994).
  • EUnet was caught between this Yin and Yang and almost at the same time: a) decided to participate in a research project sponsored by the EC with a project for "migration to OSI" and b) submitted a request to EUUG for financing of migration of the European network to TCP/IP. Neither was successful, but the panorama was changing and, even without any real financing, all the principal EUnet nodes adopted Internet protocols over dedicated lines.
  • The Italian node, which we hosted at Genoa, first got a 19.2 kbps line to INRIA in the Sophia Antipolis tech-park (Antibes), then a direct line to Amsterdam at 64kbps, and a 9.6 kbps link with CNUCE in Pisa (the first example of a "gateway" in Italy between different protocols).
  • It was at this point that I found myself in another Yin and Yang situation, one that would profoundly affect my life. It was no longer possible to run the "network" on a purely voluntary basis.
  • The "service" I ran had a budget and paid technicians, but was based on mere division of cost between the "affiliated" users and was not able to finance itself even to the extent of buying a UPS system. In other parts of Europe, managers of the UNIX portions of national networks heard the siren song of venture capitalists and began to set themselves up as businesses.
  • EUnet itself was no longer a group of volunteers, it had a general manager, a board that took decisions on economic commitments worth some millions of dollars and, especially, had a strategic agenda completely different to that of the association (also because with the recession UNIX, even if stretched to "Open Systems" in the broadest sense, languished). Then there was the advent of "competition": business initiatives based on the same protocols (UNIX+Internet) and targeted at the same potential users - for example, in the UK, PIPEX and Demon.
  • In the US Rick Adams had worked a miracle finding finance from the USENIX association to convert the principal node of the worldwide UNIX network, "uunet" into a commercial company, UUNet Inc. - UUnet Inc. was the principal Internet operator worldwide until it was acquired by Worldcom in 1996, and it grew further with the merger with MCI in 1997.
  • After the bankruptcy of MCI-Worldcom in 2003, operations resumed under the name MCI and it was finally acquired by Verizon in 2006. In Europe the Board of EUnet (on which I sat) set up the company EUnet Ltd, escaping from the now troublesome control of the association.
  • But by now it was almost too late to emulate the success of the US Unix operation: some national networks affiliated to EUnet had been acquired by new private owners, others could not choose between a voluntary type set up and a commercial one (Yin and Yang, again).
  • In Italy I tried to replicate the operation that had succeeded in Europe in 1993, but with no luck. So then I was practically forced to choose one - and only one - side of the many dichotomies I had found. This was how ITnet was founded.
  • To add the finishing touch to the symbolism, I was also forced, making a virtue of necessity, to abandon the "good guys", my friends across EUnet with their idealism, and side with the "baddies", those unscrupulous entrepreneurs who bet their shirts on the commercial success of the Internet. I thought this was the end, but it was only a new beginning.
  • It was 1994. The Internet boom was about to hit Italy.
  • Looking back now with some detachment, what seemed at the time to be tensions between irreconcilable points of view now seem to be healthy dialectical opposition.
  • It was only by means of the vice-like grip of the Yin and Yang situations that I have seen myself, and the other dilemmas faced by those who made the history of the Internet in Italy, that it was possible to lay the solid foundation for that nebulous thing we call the Internet.
  • I suspect it could be no other way: no "Intelligent Design", no "Masterplan" blueprint could have produced the Net. It took the tension of opposites, the rubbing of shoulders and compromises between academia and business, science and technology, volunteers and entrepreneurs, to bring all this about.
  • A lesson that should not be forgotten, when, for example we hear talk of "innovation".
Happy Birthday ISOC