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The early days of the Internet in Cambridge

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30th Oct 2014 | 16:33

I'm currently in the process of uplifting our DNS development / operations repository from SCCS (really!) to git. This is not entirely trivial because I want to ensure that all the archival material is retained in a sensible way.

I found an interesting document from one of the oldest parts of the archive, which provides a good snapshot of academic computer networking in the UK in 1991. It was written by Tony Stonely, aka <ajms@cam.ac.uk>. AJMS is mentioned in RFC 1117 as the contact for Cambridge's IP address allocation. He was my manager when I started work at Cambridge in 2002, though he retired later that year.

The document is an email discussing IP connectivity for Cambridge's Institute of Astronomy. There are a number of abbreviations which might not be familiar...

  • Coloured Book: the JANET protocol suite
  • CS: the University Computing Service
  • CUDN: the Cambridge University Data Network
  • GBN: the Granta Backbone Network, Cambridge's duct and fibre infrastructure
  • grey: short for Grey Book, the JANET email protocol
  • IoA: the Institute of Astronomy
  • JANET: the UK national academic network
  • JIPS: the JANET IP service, which started as a pilot service early in 1991; IP traffic rapidly overtook JANET's native X.25 traffic, and JIPS became an official service in November 1991, about when this message was written
  • PSH: a member of IoA staff
  • RA: the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, a national research institute in Oxfordshire the Mullard Radio Astronomy Observatory, an outpost at Lords Bridge near Barton, where some of the dishes sit on the old Cambridge-Oxford railway line. (I originally misunderstood the reference.)
  • RGO: The Royal Greenwich Observatory, which moved from Herstmonceux to the IoA site in Cambridge in 1990
  • Starlink: a UK national DECnet network linking astronomical research institutions

Edited to correct the expansion of RA and to add Starlink

    Connection of IoA/RGO to IP world

This note is a statement of where I believe we have got to and an initial
review of the options now open.

What we have achieved so far

All the Suns are properly connected at the lower levels to the
Cambridge IP network, to the national IP network (JIPS) and to the
international IP network (the Internet). This includes all the basic
infrastructure such as routing and name service, and allows the Suns
to use all the usual native Unix communications facilities (telnet,
ftp, rlogin etc) except mail, which is discussed below. Possibly the
most valuable end-user function thus delivered is the ability to fetch
files directly from the USA.

This also provides the basic infrastructure for other machines such as
the VMS hosts when they need it.

VMS nodes

Nothing has yet been done about the VMS nodes. CAMV0 needs its address
changing, and both IOA0 and CAMV0 need routing set for extra-site
communication. The immediate intention is to route through cast0. This
will be transparent to all parties and impose negligible load on
cast0, but requires the "doit" bit to be set in cast0's kernel. We
understand that PSH is going to do all this [check], but we remain
available to assist as required.

Further action on the VMS front is stalled pending the arrival of the
new release (6.6) of the CMU TCP/IP package. This is so imminent that
it seems foolish not to await it, and we believe IoA/RGO agree [check].

Access from Suns to Coloured Book world

There are basically two options for connecting the Suns to the JANET
Coloured Book world. We can either set up one or more of the Suns as
full-blown independent JANET hosts or we can set them up to use CS
gateway facilities. The former provides the full range of facilities
expected of any JANET host, but is cumbersome, takes significant local
resources, is complicated and long-winded to arrange, incurs a small
licence fee, is platform-specific, and adds significant complexity to
the system managers' maintenance and planning load. The latter in
contrast is light-weight, free, easy to install, and can be provided
for any reasonable Unix host, but limits functionality to outbound pad
and file transfer either way initiated from the local (IoA/RGO) end.
The two options are not exclusive.

We suspect that the latter option ("spad/cpf") will provide adequate
functionality and is preferable, but would welcome IoA/RGO opinion.

Direct login to the Suns from a (possibly) remote JANET/CUDN terminal
would currently require the full Coloured Book package, but the CS
will shortly be providing X.29-telnet gateway facilities as part of
the general infrastructure, and can in any case provide this
functionality indirectly through login accounts on Central Unix
facilities. For that matter, AST-STAR or WEST.AST could be used in
this fashion.


Mail is a complicated and difficult subject, and I believe that a
small group of experts from IoA/RGO and the CS should meet to discuss
the requirements and options. The rest of this section is merely a
fleeting summary of some of the issues.
Firstly, a political point must be clarified. At the time of writing
it is absolutely forbidden to emit smtp (ie Unix/Internet style) mail
into JIPS. This prohibition is national, and none of Cambridge's
doing. We expect that the embargo will shortly be lifted somewhat, but
there are certain to remain very strict rules about how smtp is to be
used. Within Cambridge we are making best guesses as to the likely
future rules and adopting those as current working practice. It must
be understood however that the situation is highly volatile and that
today's decisions may turn out to be wrong.

The current rulings are (inter alia)

        Mail to/from outside Cambridge may only be grey (Ie. JANET

        Mail within Cambridge may be grey or smtp BUT the reply
        address MUST be valid in BOTH the Internet AND Janet (modulo
        reversal). Thus a workstation emitting smtp mail must ensure
        that the reply address contained is that of a current JANET
        mail host. Except that -

        Consenting machines in a closed workgroup in Cambridge are
        permitted to use smtp between themselves, though there is no
        support from the CS and the practice is discouraged. They
        must remember not to contravene the previous two rulings, on
        pain of disconnection.

The good news is that a central mail hub/distributer will become
available as a network service for the whole University within a few
months, and will provide sufficient gateway function that ordinary
smtp Unix workstations, with some careful configuration, can have full
mail connectivity. In essence the workstation and the distributer will
form one of those "closed workgroups", the workstation will send all
its outbound mail to the distributer and receive all its inbound mail
from the distributer, and the distributer will handle the forwarding
to and from the rest of Cambridge, UK and the world.

There is no prospect of DECnet mail being supported generally either
nationally or within Cambridge, but I imagine Starlink/IoA/RGO will
continue to use it for the time being, and whatever gateway function
there is now will need preserving. This will have to be largely
IoA/RGO's own responsibility, but the planning exercise may have to
take account of any further constraints thus imposed. Input from
IoA/RGO as to the requirements is needed.

In the longer term there will probably be a general UK and worldwide
shift to X.400 mail, but that horizon is probably too hazy to rate more
than a nod at present. The central mail switch should in any case hide
the initial impact from most users.

The times are therefore a'changing rather rapidly, and some pragmatism
is needed in deciding what to do. If mail to/from the IP machines is
not an urgent requirement, and since they will be able to log in to
the VMS nodes it may not be, then the best thing may well be to await
the mail distributer service. If more direct mail is needed more
urgently then we probably need to set up a private mail distributer
service within IoA/RGO. This would entail setting up (probably) a Sun
as a full JANET host and using it as the one and only (mail) route in
or out of IoA/RGO. Something rather similar has been done in Molecular
Biology and is thus known to work, but setting it up is no mean task.
A further fall-back option might be to arrange to use Central Unix
facilities as a mail gateway in similar vein. The less effort spent on
interim facilities the better, however.

Broken mail

We discovered late in the day that smtp mail was in fact being used
between IoA and RA, and the name changing broke this. We regret having
thus trodden on existing facilities, and are willing to help try to
recover any required functionality, but we believe that IoA/RGO/RA in
fact have this in hand. We consider the activity to fall under the
third rule above. If help is needed, please let us know.

We should also report sideline problem we encountered and which will
probably be a continuing cause of grief. CAVAD, and indeed any similar
VMS system, emits mail with reply addresses of the form
"CAVAD::user"@....  This is quite legal, but the quotes are
syntactically significant, and must be returned in any reply.
Unfortunately the great majority of Unix systems strip such quotes
during emission of mail, so the reply address fails. Such stripping
can occur at several levels, notably the sendmail (ie system)
processing and the one of the most popular user-level mailers. The CS
is fixing its own systems, but the problem is replicated in something
like half a million independent Internet hosts, and little can be done
about it.

Other requirements

There may well be other requirements that have not been noticed or,
perish the thought, we have inadvertently broken. Please let us know
of these.

Bandwidth improvements

At present all IP communications between IoA/RGO and the rest of the
world go down a rather slow (64Kb/sec) link. This should improve
substantially when it is replaced with a GBN link, and to most of
Cambridge the bandwidth will probably become 1-2Mb/sec. For comparison,
the basic ethernet bandwidth is 10Mb/sec. The timescale is unclear, but
sometime in 1992 is expected. The bandwidth of the national backbone
facilities is of the order of 1Mb/sec, but of course this is shared with
many institutions in a manner hard to predict or assess.

For Computing Service,
Tony Stoneley, ajms@cam.cus

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Comments {6}

Ewen McNeill


from: edm
date: 30th Oct 2014 22:00 (UTC)

Fascinating snapshot of the past (particularly since I was on the Internet by then, on the other side of the world, and remember some of the restrictions of the academic-influenced Internet origins). Thanks for sharing.

Do you happen to have any idea why sending SMTP out over JANET was not permitted at the time? Just bandwidth concerns? (Even for the 1990s 64kbps was not a huge amount of bandwidth shared amongst a large organisation.) Or something related to the UK domain name component ordering (Big Endian :-) ) differing (at the time) from the rest of the world? (.nz DNS rules had a few restrictions on third level names, as work arounds for that difference, through into the early 2000s IIRC.)


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Tony Finch

Re: 1991

from: fanf
date: 31st Oct 2014 11:08 (UTC)

I don't know the specific reasons for forbidding SMTP across JANET.

There seems to have been a lot of anxiety about email in those days, to do with stability and coverage of email addresses. For example, from another message in December 1991 (college name changed) -

If UK.AC.CAM.BOT is registered for mail, you must handle mail for all electronic-mail users at St Botolph's, whatever machine(s) they use.

One of the unusual restrictions that we have retained is that our central mail relays will not deliver mail to arbitrary hostnames within Cambridge, only to properly registered mail domains. That policy seems to have its origins in the need for parallel registrations in the JANET NRS and the Internet DNS, so that email address translation works.

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Re: 1991

from: nonameyet
date: 1st Nov 2014 09:01 (UTC)

> Do you happen to have any idea why sending SMTP out over JANET
> was not permitted at the time?

I think JANET was resolutely coloured-book even in 1991.
I remember carrying the coloured-book addresses of my home institutions around so that I could log in from a pad terminal when I visited Bristol in 1992 or 1993.

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Rachel Coleman

from: rmc28
date: 31st Oct 2014 13:09 (UTC)

Thank you for sharing this, it's utterly fascinating.

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Interesting Links for 02-11-2014

from: livejournal
date: 2nd Nov 2014 11:00 (UTC)

User andrewducker referenced to your post from Interesting Links for 02-11-2014 saying: [...] ) The early days of the Internet in Cambridge [...]

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Liam Proven

from: lproven
date: 2nd Nov 2014 14:00 (UTC)

Fascinating. Thanks for that.

I have been happily describing my RHBNC VAXcluster account, with JANET access, as how "I was on the Internet in 1985" for decades. Now I discover it wasn't even IP based. I blush retroactively.

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