Interview: Cerf Discusses His Jump To Google

Vinton Cerf, often called the "father of the Internet," sees a growing need for innovation in software that can find creative uses for the sea of data flowing into the

September 9, 2005

4 Min Read
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Vinton Cerf, often called the "father of the Internet," sees a growing need for innovation in software that can find creative uses for the sea of data flowing into the Internet each day.

As a result, the 62-year-old co-developer of the TCP/IP protocol that made it possible for computers to interact on the Internet said he was drawn to the work at search-engine giant Google Inc., which announced Thursday that it had hired Cerf as "chief Internet evangelist." Cerf is scheduled to start work Oct. 3.

"This is a place that's just full of creative energy, and I like places like that," Cerf said.

Google is not only looking to help organize the massive amounts of digitized information getting connected to the Internet, but it is also extending its footprint to devices connected to the web, Cerf said. As an example, he pointed to the Mountain View, Calif., company's desktop-search application, which also connects the user to its Internet services.

"I see Google creating information infrastructure, literally, as it goes about adding applications to the things it can do. And that's what exciting, because that information infrastructure has all kind of possibilities," Cerf said.Cerf describes the Internet as layers of technology, starting with his original TCP/IP protocol invention, moving up the stack to applications running on devices attached to the Internet. Having these applications attached to Google services forms a kind of upper-level infrastructure, Cerf said.

"While it presents itself as a web interface to most people, Google could just as well present itself as a programmable interface, which means that you can start writing software that gets information through the eyes, sort of speak, of Google," Cerf said. "That creates a vocabulary, if you like, that programmable systems can use in order to take advantage of what Google is capable of doing with its gigantic database."

Cerf said he isn't new to search. He left telecommunications company MCI for eight years in 1986 to work with Robert Kahn, the co-developer of TCP/IP, in working on software for creating digital libraries, search in mobile computing and systems for intellectual property protection. Before agreeing to join Google, Cerf worked as senior vice president for technology strategy at MCI.

"This is not a new interest for me," Cerf said of search. "It's just that I've spent the last decade or so working more on basic Internet infrastructure evolution at MCI. But I've been increasingly interested in focusing back on the application level, higher layer stuff. So this is a wonderful opportunity to pursue that."

Among the biggest changes Cerf sees on the Internet is the "avalanche of information that's out there.""Having the world's knowledge at your fingertips is amazing," he said. "The second thing is the flexibility and richness of communications among people and between computers."

The Internet has evolved into a system of many types of communication, from instant messaging and email to video conferencing and collaboration software for sharing documents.

Beyond communications, Cerf sees the Internet also evolving into a better computational platform through grid computing and peer-to-peer interactions between computer systems.

"Those are all computational engines that are highly distributed and therefore highly robust," Cerf said. "We're seeing a very significant evolution in the way we even think about computer systems, let alone specific applications."

Among Cerf's interests today is mobile communications, both textual and through images. As a result, he's particularly interested in Google Earth, a desktop application that provides satellite images and overlaid roadmaps for many locations in the world."I'm now persuaded that geographically indexed databases are going to be extremely valuable over time for people who are in mobile operations," Cerf said.

Cerf's current long-term projects include work with NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab to standardize deep-space communications protocols. This "interplanetary Internet" would make it possible for the various computer systems in space, from old and new missions, to interact and use each other's data, Cerf said.

"I will be continuing that work," Cerf said.

To help improve the capabilities of the Internet, Cerf said he would continue encouraging the adoption of IPv6, the next generation of the Internet protocol that provides for an almost unlimited number of networks and systems. The specification was completed in 1997.

"I'm still a strong proponent of getting IPv6 rolled out," Cerf said.On the United State's ability to produce the highest quality researchers, Cerf was optimistic, and less critical than Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, who has said the nation's educational system isn't producing enough computer engineers.

"I would agree that the U.S. educational system, especially at the undergraduate and graduate levels, needs some work, but in the meantime, we seem to be cranking out people who are capable," Cerf said.

Cerf said he often meets young people pursuing radical ideas in technology because they "don't know you can't do that, so they go of and do it."

"And there's nothing more refreshing than that (can do) attitude," he said.

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