Ireland’s real net pioneer
Meet the Irishman whose key decisions in the Eighties led to the web as we know it today
When people think of the founding fathers of the internet, they think of inventors such as Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf who created TCP/IP protocols that the internet runs on, as well as creator of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee.
Few realise that it was an Irishman whose strategic decision in the Eighties with the US National Science Foundation (NST) that led to the creation of the internet as we know it.
That man, the former head of UCD’s Computer Science Department and founder of the IEDR (.ie Domain Registry), Dennis Jennings has been nominated to the Board of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN).
ICANN is the body that decides policy on the shape of the internet and assignment of international domain names.
The internet was originally born in the Fifties as the ARPA (Advanced Research Projects Agency) Net in response to the launch of Sputnik.
Jennings, while in charge of the supercomputing initiative at the US National Science Foundation in 1983, decided to take TCP/IP protocols out of the military world and the hands of a select few researchers and into the wider university world.
That decision set in motion the trigger for the creation of a wider family of networks collectively known as the internet.
Jennings is modest about his contribution to the internet: “If I didn’t do it someone else would have. But it is true that I made the decisions that led to the internet as we know it today. I was the first person in the US to talk about an ‘internet’ and the first to create a network that incorporated all the other networks in the US at the time.
“Our ambition was to link all 300 universities in the US to create a national centre for research. While it was ambitious at the time we had no concept that the internet would grow the way it has.
“By the time I left the NSF in 1986 I had spent US$17m of US Government money but knew I had started something big,” Jennings recalls.
It was in the early Nineties with the onset of the Mosaic browser and the European backbone network (Ebone) that TCP/IP began to appear on local networks in European universities.
In 1992 Jennings was also instrumental in the creation of the IEDR which he helped run until 1999 from UCD’s computer science department.
It was in the early Nineties that Jennings also became a technology investor, being involved in the start-up of companies like Baltimore
Technologies, Euristix, Ntera and WBT.
Jennings got a handsome return on his investment in Euristix in 1999 when it was bought by Fore Systems for US$81m. Fore Systems was then subsequently bought by GEC-Marconi for US$2.8bn.
While Jennings refuses to admit the deal made him a wealthy man, he admits he was able to take a career break from UCD and consider other opportunities. He focused on investing in young technology companies as an angel investor.
Along with his friend Ray Norton, former head of Siemens Nixdorf in Ireland, he approached Dolmen Securities’ Ronan Reid about establishing a venture capital fund for commercialising university research and Fourth Level Ventures was born.
“We work very hard with companies before we invest in them. We’ve invested in 12 companies and at least half of those are looking
“One thing you learn as an investor is that if things could possibly go wrong, they more than likely will. Also you learn that while costs are certain, revenues are not.”
Jennings will take up his board position at ICANN at the end of October. He says a reason why he was selected out of 70 names put forward was his combination of internet, management and commercial experience.
Jennings says one of the prime challenges facing ICANN is the introduction of international domain names (IDNs) other than in Latin script. “We need to create top-level domains that take into account Chinese and Arabic script. These have to be introduced and we need to ensure they are fairly competed for.”
He says the issue of IDNs will be important to international commerce. “If you’re a Western business, reaching out to a Chinese market of over two billion people, for example, will be important.
“IDN is one of the most important challenges facing ICANN over the next year or so,” Jennings concludes.
© Silicon Republic Ltd 2007
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