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Vol. LXVII, No. 2
January 16, 2015

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Internet Founder Invites World to New Version of Net

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Dr. Vint Cerf speaks at recent NLM conference.
Dr. Vint Cerf speaks at recent NLM conference.
Almost 20 years ago, one of the fathers of the Internet, Dr. Vint Cerf, and colleagues built a new version of the Internet, complete with HOV lanes, E-ZPass access and sprawling exurbs of new IP (Internet protocol) addresses. But so far, very few people have taken advantage, even though your iPhone, your tablet, your Mac and most likely your PC are set up to handle what’s known as IPv6, or Internet protocol version 6.

Recently, in NLM’s Lister Hill Amphitheater, Cerf, an avuncular, irreverent figure with a Sigmund Freud beard, wondered aloud about why only 3 percent of the world is using a fast-lane Internet that has been around since 1996. His talk opened a daylong HHS symposium on IPv6, including how it is being implemented across federal government.


An engaging speaker, Cerf, now a vice president at Google, recalled off-hand how he and Bob Kahn, co-inventors of TCP-IP (transmission control protocol and Internet protocol), participated in the building of ARPANET, starting in 1968. “In 1973, after the ARPANET was running, we started work on the design of a multi-network ‘Internet.’ We mused about how many terminations might be needed for a network of networks we would eventually call the Internet.

“We guessed there were about 128 countries in the world, so that meant two networks would be needed,” he recalled. “We figured there were about 16 million computers and 4.3 billion terminations…In 1989, our experiment got loose and became commercially available.”

Cerf said that in 1992, “panic mode set in” as Internet architects realized that 128 bits (3.4 x 10 to the 38th power) of address space might not be enough. Work on IP version 5, designed to accommodate the bandwidth needed to support video, was set aside in favor of IPv6, which became one of the standard protocols 19 years ago.

“Not all Internet service providers have turned on 6, but virtually all of our phones and computers are ready for it,” said Cerf, who advised consumers to call up their ISPs and ask when they plan to make IPv6 available. “If they don’t hear from you, they won’t do anything.” Much of the world still runs on IPv4, he said; all Google products run on both versions.

Cerf said that by early 2015, most regional Internet registries will run out of IPv4 address space, forcing adoption of v6 by networks needing address space for expansion. He also said that the “Internet of things,” when even lightbulbs will have their own IP addresses, demands a roomier protocol.

“Half a million networks make up the Internet today,” he said. “All operate independently of one another, but they share a protocol. This is a big tent, operationally and financially.”

Cerf said it has become almost casual to add devices to the net. “There are increasing numbers of networked appliances—TVs, tablets, mobiles, sensor systems, medical instruments, remotely controlled devices, picture frames, Google Glass, automobiles [think GM’s OnStar system]. Even refrigerators are part of the Internet now. I never anticipated that.”

Cerf’s own home features a wireless home climate monitoring system, which, among other things, helps maintain his wine cellar.

Cerf’s own home features a wireless home climate monitoring system, which, among other things, helps maintain his wine cellar.

Photos: Ernie Branson

There are Internet-enabled bathroom scales that will send your weight to the doctor, for inclusion in your medical record, Cerf said; Philips makes a lightbulb called the Hue that has an Internet connection.

“There are Internet-enabled surfboards available,” he continued, giving new meaning to the phrase “surfing the web.”

“I’m convinced that sensor networks will be everywhere,” he added, noting that Google has purchased the company Nest, which makes Internet-enabled thermostats. Cerf’s own home features a wireless home climate monitoring system, which, among other things, helps maintain his wine cellar. A company called SteadyServ offers IPv6-enabled sensors that monitor the weight of beer barrels, to keep suds flowing in bars.

Medical applications include a glucose monitor embedded in a contact lens, which chemically samples tears in diabetic patients; the monitor could potentially connect to an implanted insulin pump, Cerf said.

“Google Glass has been used already in the operating room,” he added. A $10 million X Prize is available to whoever can invent a portable device for noninvasive patient exams.

“The Internet of things opens up the possibility of continuous monitoring,” said Cerf, citing the FitBit exercise band that many people have adopted to monitor their physical activity. “You could track people’s vital signs no matter where they are. That would give a better baseline of what is normal for you.”

An app that takes your temperature would be useful in the current Ebola crisis, he said. “That kind of correlation could be very important. These are the sorts of aspirations that people have.”

Cerf went on to prove his bona fides as Google’s “chief Internet evangelist” by enumerating how the Internet can confer “smartness” on everything from cities to cars (self-driven) to houses and from the water and gas supply to the electrical power grid. “We can go from smart cities to smart continents, maybe even a smart world,” he said.

“There are a lot more ‘things’ than people,” he added, which is why the world needs IPv6 vs. IPv4. “We estimate that there will be 50 billion devices on the net by the end of the decade.”

The only down note Cerf sounded is the problem of preserving digital information over long periods of time; what will a DVD disk mean to someone in the year 3000? For that matter, what does a VHS tape mean to a modern teenager?

Cerf says his next big project is archival—to know what floppy disks were for, we will need to preserve the operating system, the apps and the hardware. Otherwise the data bits lack context, even if they survive the eons.

Meanwhile, IPv6 is where we need to go, he urged. “It’s a more efficient format to interpret and a friendlier formula,” Cerf said. “We’ll have a more fragmented and brittle Internet if it is not adopted. The value is connectivity.”

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