Jon Postel died the other day. These are very hard words to write. The reality behind them is even harder. Jon was a friend, teacher, co-trustee, sage and guide. We mourn his passing and celebrate his having been. He left us far before his time, having accomplished far more than most people can know.
Jon was one of the fundamental reasons why the Internet works. He did not invent all the technology, but as the editor and arbiter of the Internet Engineering Task Force's (IETF) RFC publication series, he made sure that the descriptions of the technology were clear and precise. He did not invent the process of creating Internet standards, but he was a guide to those of us trying to understand and then document the process. These contributions, which would have formed a full legacy by themselves, are not the reason that it is hard to imagine the Internet of today developing without Jon.
Jon created the Internet technical management structure. He invented and then became the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA), or the Internet's technical bookkeeper. The IANA kept the lists and created the processes that ensure IP addresses are unique, domain names can be resolved and Internet applications can communicate. This is mundane work, but it is just the sort of thing that can cause a system to collapse if not done correctly.
Jon was the IANA for many years, but as it became clear the Internet was growing too fast for any one person to support on his own, Jon started to build an organisation to perform these functions. The IANA for some years has been an organisation, not an individual.
Over the past few years, Jon had been working out what he called an exit strategy. He felt the organisation, which is now the IANA, needed to wean itself from US government support and authority to become a stand-alone, public interest, nongovernmental organisation. He felt the same way about the IP address, protocol number and domain name allocation processes.
Jon came up with a proposal to accomplish this separation based on the same system used by the IETF to process standards. That process consists of producing a series of draft proposals, with each succeeding draft modified in response to comments received. Jon's new proposal is known as the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) and was submitted to the US government shortly before Jon died. During this submission process, Jon was subjected to some of the most vitriolic personal attacks I've seen on any individual, and there were many times when it would have been rational for Jon to just walk away. But his strong sense of responsibility would not let him do that. This was not ego; Jon had built the Internet support functions and it would have been irresponsible not to ensure their continuation.
The ICANN plan is not Jon's legacy. However, we must work to complete the plan's realisation, not to honour him, but because it is the right organisation for our future.
Jon's legacy is an Internet whose support systems just work. Nevertheless, I shall miss him greatly.
Disclaimer: I knew Jon, Harvard did not; these are my remembrances.
Scott Bradner is a consultant with Harvard University's University Information Systems. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.