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NSFNET Celebrates 20 years of Internet Obscurity, Inspiration

The National Science Foundation (NSF) reissued the words that started the Internet revolution 20 years ago today: “The NSFnet Backbone has reached a state where we would like to more officially let operational traffic on.”

That was the email sent to users of the NSF’s fledgling NSFNET to announce that the network’s backbone had been upgraded to a “blazing T-1 speed.” NSFnet was created by NSF a few years earlier in an attempt to create a computer network similar to the Department of Defense’s ARPANET.
When the original six-node, 56 kilobits-per-second NSFnet backbone went into operation in 1986, NSF made the decision to allow any academic, governmental or commercial entity to hook up to this network of networks. Within a few weeks of going online, traffic on the new network began doubling every few weeks.

The network’s backbone of core 56 kilobits-per-second connections were considered fast, but they were not fast enough to satisfy the demands of all the new users who were coming online, according to the NSF. According to an NSF release, the team pegged with the NSFNET build-out — MCI, IBM and a computer networking technology consortium of Michigan universities called MERIT Networks — decided on an audacious goal–to upgrade the backbone to a T1 level of speed, or 1.544 megabits-per-second, almost 28 times faster than the existing network.

Program managers at NSF decided the upgrade needed to happen as soon as possible, and set July 1, 1988 as the completion date.

After that, traffic on NSFNET continued to skyrocket and by 1989 was seeing a traffic load of over 500 million packets per month. Traffic across the backbone increased more than 20 percent per month and doubled every seven months. Ultimately the network went to T-3 speeds but within a few years, private network providers were able to accommodate this traffic and NSFNET was decommissioned in 1995.

Of course there was a little thing called the Internet by then that was garnering way more users and attention.

The NSF said though its story is somewhat overlooked by history, NSFnet is generally accepted as the progenitor of the modern Internet.

At its launch, the NSFNET T1 backbone featured 13 backbone nodes and connected 217 networks across the U.S. At 1.5 megabits per second, the T1-based network was 24 times faster than the original 56 Kbps NSFNET network.

The network was an enormous success and by 1989 was experiencing a traffic load of over 500 million packets per month. As more networks and organizations connected to the NSFNET, network usage grew exponentially. Traffic across the backbone increased more than 20 percent per month and doubled every seven months.

The surge in traffic posed many challenges to the NSFNET management team. The network was re-engineered in 1989 to accommodate a greater number of T1 connections. By 1990, testing of a new T3 network began, and Advanced Network & Services, Inc. (ANS) was formed as a separate nonprofit corporation to provide the NSFNET backbone service as a subcontractor to Merit. ANS began to phase in the new network in 1991, initially running it in parallel with the existing T1 network. Implementation of the new T3 backbone network was completed in 1992.

Reprinted from Network World.