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Jon Postel, RIP

(Mick Farmer)

The Internet Community mourns the loss of a leader and the first individual member of the Internet Society. Jonathan B. Postel passed away on Friday, October 16th. For thirty years, Postel served all Internet users in a variety of key roles, although few outside the technical community may know his name. Long before there were any books written about the Internet, there was only a series of technical documents known as the "Request For Comments" or RFC series. Jon edited and organized these materials which helped to set the Internet's first standards.

Said long-time colleague and Internaut, Danny Cohen, who was with Postel when he died: "I saw Jon this afternoon. He did really well, was able to talk, joke, and discuss several things (including some IANA related). His mind was definitely clear. It happened in mid-conversation, with no warning, with no pain. He surely did not suffer."

Long-time co-worker, ARPAnaut, Internaut and Internet Architecture Board member, Bob Braden put his feelings into words: "Jon lavished quiet but passionate dedication on the Internet. He hated it when people said or did stupid or destructive things. It was easy to overlook or underestimate Jon's contribution. He did not give riveting speeches. Lots and lots of very bright people contributed ideas and words to the Internet protocol suite, but it was Jon Postel who spun out the final words that define the Internet. Jon was a roomful of wise and active committees, all rolled up in one. Jon's untimely passing is a tragedy for all of us who have had the privilege of knowing and working with him. We will miss him."

"Jon has been our North Star for decades, burning brightly and constantly, providing comfort and a sense of security while all else changed," said Vint Cerf, current chairman of the board of the Internet Society. "He was Internet's Boswell and its technical conscience. His loss will be sorely felt, not only for his expertise, but because the community has lost a dear and much-loved friend."

Postel began his networking career in 1969 while a graduate student at UCLA working on the now-famous ARPANET project (precursor to the Internet) as a research assistant to Professor Leonard Kleinrock who said, "Jon's key contributions to our work during those critical formative days of the ARPANET is largely unrecognized. As we broke new ground at the birthplace of the Internet in 1969, I remember Jon as a deeply dedicated, brilliant young programmer on our team. It was a frontier at that time, and Jon was truly a pioneer with a vision. It was in those days that he became editor of the 'Request for Comments' series, which continues to this day. Jon's dedication to the growth and health of the Internet continued from those heady times throughout the rest of his life. And for this, he sought neither recognition nor praise. Jon's passing is a tragic loss which will be felt by all those whose lives have been touched by the Internet, but especially by those of us who traveled the road with this quiet gentle man these many many years."

For many years, Postel was the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA) which oversees the allocation and assignment of domain names and Internet addresses. Ultimately, the task grew large enough that he acquired a small staff to assist in this work. His early recognition of the importance of careful documentation seems truly clairvoyant with today's hindsight. All the technical work on the ARPANET and later, the Internet, as well as the theory and practice behind the administration of names and addresses is collected for historians today largely because of Jon's dedication. At a time when the network was only an experiment, Jon Postel was fully committed to providing a safe and secure haven for the information that makes it possible for the Internet to function.

He was directly responsible for the management of the .US domain name. Additionally, he served as a member of the Internet Architecture Board from its inception in 1983 continuously through the present. Postel had many other roles including a key part in the founding of the Internet Society. He also founded the Los Nettos network service in the Los Angeles area.

Postel offered something rarely found at any time: quiet, competent and continuous stewardship. He regarded his responsibilities as a kind of public trust. He never received any personal benefit from the exploding business of the Internet, choosing instead to stay outside of the business frenzy, the Initial Public Offerings and other paraphernalia of Wall Street.

Postel's friend and graduate school colleague, Stephen D. Crocker, led the development of the host protocols for the ARPANET. Crocker started the RFC series and Jon instantly volunteered to edit them. "The unthinkable has happened. We've all lost a great friend and major pillar of support and sanity in our peculiar, surrealistic world," said Crocker. "To those of us involved in the human "network" of engineers who design and develop the Internet, he was one of the key people who kept the network running. He worked tirelessly and selflessly. He was always there."

"I can't believe he's gone, Jon was a hero to me and to many others on the Internet. What a mediator he was: always smiling and ready to consider a new idea, with no agenda of his own other than to further the Greater Good of the Internet around the World," said Jean Armour Polly, former Internet Society Trustee.

While working on the ARPANET at UCLA, Postel pursued a Ph.D. research program under the direction of Professors David Farber at UC Irvine and Gerald Estrin at UCLA. Professor Farber reminisces: "Jon was my second Ph.D. student. I was his primary thesis advisor along with Jerry Estrin and I remember with fond memories the months spent closely working with Jon while his eager mind developed the ideas in back of what was a pioneering thesis that founded the area of protocol verification. Since I was at UC Irvine and Jon at UCLA we used to meet in the morning prior to my ride to UCI at a Pancake House in Santa Monica for breakfast and the hard work of developing a thesis. I gained a great respect for Jon then and 10 pounds of weight."

Jerry Estrin recalls Jon Postel as a wonderfully fine, gentle, unselfish human being who truly cared about people and his professional contributions. "In the 1970s, he was fearless in trying to apply an emerging graph model to verification of complex ARPANET protocols. I will not forget Jon coming to me during a graduate seminar and gently asking if I could refrain from pipe smoking during class. He showed the same foresight about the toxic effects of smoking as he did about the positive potential impact of computer networks."

Postel served in many positions in his long connection with the Internet. He worked with industry legend Doug Engelbart at SRI International in Menlo Park, CA, where he became a strong supporter of the oNLine System (NLS) a predecessor in many respects to the World Wide Web, including the hyperlink feature so familiar to us today. He moved to the Washington area to support the Advanced Research Projects Agency for a time and then came to USC Information Sciences Institute where he became a permanent star in the Internet heavens, guiding all Internauts as they explored the expanding ocean the Internet has become.

Postel was elected to the Board of Trustees of the Internet Society in 1993 and re-elected to a second three-year term in 1996. In the last two years, he worked tirelessly to help facilitate the migration of the US Government - -funded IANA and general Domain Name management system into a non-profit, international, private sector enterprise. Shortly before his death, the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) was incorporated and has been proposed as the successor to the US Government-funded system that has served the Internet community for nearly 30 years.

Postel is survived by: his companion, Susann Gould, of Los Angeles, CA; his mother, Lois Postel, of Sherman Oaks, CA; his brother Thomas (Mort) Postel of Sherman Oaks, CA; his brother, Russell Postel, of Sebastopol, CA; and his sister, Margie Bradshaw, of Paisley, Scotland.

The Internet Society is making preparations to create the Jonathan B. Postel Service Award in recognition of his decades of stewardship and service to the Internet community.

Reprinted with the permission of the Internet Society.


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