Internet Reconfiguration Concerns Federal Officials
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, January 31, 1998; Page H01
A University of Southern California researcher this week took the unusual
step of rerouting many Internet address queries to a computer he runs under
a Pentagon contract, instead of letting them go to a government-sponsored
central facility in Herndon that usually handles the traffic.
Without notifying the federal agencies that supervise the Internet,
researcher Jon Postel, widely known as the father of the Internet's
addressing system, reconfigured at least half of the Internet's 12 key
directory information computers to get their data exclusively from his
computer instead of the Herndon center, which possesses the one
authoritative worldwide list of Internet addresses, according to government
Although Postel, who runs the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority at USC,
has told officials that the reconfiguration was just a test, some government
officials and industry sources said it occurred at a highly surprising time.
Internet community leaders affiliated with Postel spent the week embroiled
in tense negotiations with the Clinton administration over the government's
future role in controlling some of the network's key operating functions.
The administration released a report yesterday calling for the Internet's
most crucial operations to be transferred from federal research agencies to
the private sector over the next two years. Some computer user groups,
including those affiliated with Postel, had urged the government to end its
oversight of the network sooner.
"It's very hard to believe the timing was entirely coincidental," said one
senior government official familiar with the incident.
Postel did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday, but in a
statement he said the reconfiguration would result in "no change to the
data" in the directory-information computers, called "root servers." He said
that "once this test is completed, [the servers] will revert to the previous
Although the incident did not appear to hamper the ability of people to
access information on the Internet this week, it highlights the ad hoc
nature of how some of the network's most important operating functions are
handled. Despite the fact that Postel's research facility is funded by the
Defense Department, there are no controls to prevent him from ordering a
The Clinton administration intends to change that by having a not-for-profit
corporation, starting later this year, supervise the root server system and
upgrade many of the machines.
"If you want a demonstration that the system is flaky, here you have it,"
the senior government official said.
Postel's research facility helps oversee the root servers under a Defense
Department contract. The servers, which are essential to the medium's
operation, match text Internet addresses (such as www.washingtonpost.com) to
actual network addresses that are expressed as numbers (such as
188.8.131.52). Without the servers, a user who typed in a text address
would encounter a blank screen.
There are 12 secondary root servers spread around the world that are
supposed to get their information from a main root server, which is operated
for the government by Network Solutions Inc. in Herndon. Postel, who
operates one of the 12 secondary servers, asked the operators of six others
to communicate with him instead of the main server at Network Solutions.
Senior government officials spoke to Postel Thursday night and ordered him
to have the other server computers reestablish their connections with the
Herndon server, sources said. The changes are expected to take several days
One of the reconfigured servers is located at the University of Maryland at
College Park and handles an average of 2,000 address inquiries a second.
Gerry Sneeringer, the assistant director for networking for the university's
Academic Information Technologies Service, said he received an e-mail
message last week from Postel asking that the change be made. "If Jon asks
us to point somewhere else, we'll do it," Sneeringer said. "He is the
Akira Kato, a researcher at the University of Tokyo who runs another root
server, said in a telephone interview that he, too, reconfigured his server
after getting an e-mail from Postel.
J. Beckwith Burr, a Commerce Department official who co-authored the
administration's report, said the incident "caused a lot of concern."
"The timing was most unfortunate," he said. "We have asked that the system
be returned to the situation it was in before and that no such tests are to
be undertaken without consultation again."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company
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