Thursday, May 5, 2016

Russia, Networks, Innovation

Peters' book on Networking the Soviet Union is less a tale of the technology developed in the then Soviet Union than a tale about the structure of the centralized bureaucracy that managed to nearly bankrupt the entity. As regards to the actual technology I would go back to the mid-1970s when I was in Washington. At the time I was at Comsat and was "befriended" by the Technical Attaché at the Czechoslovakian Embassy. Also the home of the Cuban delegation as less than an idle point of interest. As part of my tasks at the time I followed my new friend around as he tried from one occasion to another to collect data on US telecommunications and network systems. At the same time, I had the task of connecting what was then the early stage of the ARPA Net to the Intelsat system connecting Etam West Virginia to Goonhilly in the UK and Trondheim in Norway. In the U*S we basically placed all of this in the public domain so I would guess my "friends" job was fairly easy.

I saw him I believe in the Fall of 1977 at a Conference at Cornell at which time the Diffie Hellman encryption algorithm was discussed. I guess that half the attendees were not necessarily who they may have said they were.

Then some twenty plus years later I now had partners in Russia running my Russian network and the former head of the Czech PTT was now my Czech partner. My former "friend" used to work for him. Small world. Since I had worked on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty Negotiations in the late 1970s, doing the networking for the seismometers, my Russian friends clearly knew me. During one of my conversations I was told by my Czech partner, a senior figure both in Czech as well as Soviet circles that they used the Bell System Technical Journals to design their telecom systems and the IEEE journals for data systems.

In fact, one of my Russian partners was one of the first to introduce the Internet to Russia and we completed the task in the late 90s. As such I have a different view than the author, one based on technical facts of the network and its operations.

This book is NOT about the Internet or its Soviet clone from a technical or operational perspective. Rather it is about the Soviet bureaucratic system and the need to make some sense out of its overwhelming administrative overhead using networks on both the economic administrative side and the military side.

Chapter 1 is a discussion of Wiener and Cybernetics. The author presents one of the best discussions regarding the acceptance of Cybernetics in the Soviet Union I have seen. Wiener was a brilliant mathematician and in addition could think in large scale systems. His book on Cybernetics was warmly received in the US but its theme was understanding large scale systems and the US was no longer, at that time, interested in that. It was moving from a War footing and into a capitalist industrial footing in the 50s. The Soviet Union on the other hand was further consolidating a centralized command and control economy and Wiener's ideas rang bells. Thus they adopted his view of the world. Chapter 2 presents a good overview of how the Soviet Union then took these ideas and tried to integrate them into this centralized world.

Chapter 3 is allegedly an attempt to present the networks used. It really is a discussion of the people and the politics and not the technical issues. Although interesting I really wanted to see some discussion of what the Russian had implemented and how their designs differed from ours. There were a mass of varying data protocols and data speeds and network transport mechanisms that were developed in the US and I wondered what did the Soviets do in parallel. The author depicts the Soviet's response as a response to SAGE and then I wondered what the response was to the packet ideas of Baran. In fact, the work of Roberts and in turn Kahn at ARPA were almost all in the open literature and the goal was a survivable network, apparently perceived by the Soviets as a threat. If so I wondered just what they did. I am certain that there must now be a great deal of unclassified CIA and DIA reports that would clarify that but the discussion is missing.

Chapters 4 and 5 go through the 60s and then 70-80s respectively and the author presents the principals who tried to accomplish something in this realm. The politics seemed to be always creating roadblocks and the innovation that ARPA allowed seemed to foster what we have today.

The author has an interesting discussion on the Mansfield Amendment, that in 1969 put an end to DoD funding anything but specific program supported work. Until that time DoD funded what has become the foundation of our information based economy, and with Mansfield we saw a total collapse of that development. I often wondered if the Soviets saw that for what it did.

Overall the book is an excellent presentation of the people and politics of what would become some of the infrastructure in the Soviet Union. I wondered what the role of a RosTelecom would be in that mix, an element not discussed. In addition, the Soviets had satellites the Molyniya System which were not equatorial but polar, and thus their communications ground stations were expensive and subject to failing. Their cable connections were also mixed with spotty interconnections across the wide expanses. The author provides some maps but it would have been more useful to have some detail.

This is a well-organized and presentation of the system, as politics, not the system as technology. Given how closely the Soviets monitored US technology and how open we were then and now, I have often wondered what the Russian created from whole cloth and what was reproduced. The Russians were and are technologically on a par with the West in terms of human capital but it was often the weight of the system that slowed them down. That burden was lifted after the fall but I wonder how much may have returned.