Vint Cerf on 3 Mistakes He Made in TCP/IP

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Vint Cerf received the 2023 IEEE Medal of Honor for co-creating the architecture of the Internet.

Peter Adams

Vint Cerf, the recipient of the 2023 IEEE Medal of Honor for “co-creating the Internet architecture and providing sustained leadership in its phenomenal growth in becoming society’s critical infrastructure,” didn’t have a perfect view of the Internet’s future. In hindsight, there are a few things he admits he got wrong. Here some of those mistakes, as recently told to IEEE Spectrum:

1) “I thought 32 bits ought to be enough for Internet addresses.”

“And of course,” he says, “everybody laughs and says, ‘You idiot, why didn’t you use 128-bit addresses?’ The answer is that, back in 1973, people would’ve said, ‘You’re crazy if you think you need 3.4 times 10 to the 38th addresses to do an experiment that you aren’t sure is going to work.’ So that was a mistake, although I don’t think at the time that I would have been able to sell 128.”

2) “I didn’t pay enough attention to security.”

“Before public-key cryptography came around, key distribution was a really messy manual process,” Cerf says. “It was awful, and it didn’t scale. So that’s why I didn’t try to push that into the Internet. And by the time they did implement the RSA algorithm, I was well on my way to freezing the protocol, so I didn’t push the crypto stuff. I still don’t regret that, because graduate students, who were largely the people building and using the Internet, would be the last cohort of people I would rely on to maintain key discipline, though there are times when I wish we had put more end-to-end security in the system to begin with.”

3) “I didn’t really appreciate the implications of the World Wide Web.”

“That is,” Cerf says, “I didn’t expect the avalanche of content that went onto the Internet once the Web was made available. And what happened as a result of that avalanche is that we had to invent search engines in order to find stuff, because there was so much of it. I absolutely did not predict that search engines would be needed.”

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