NANOG 90 Keynote: Exploring the Internet History of Meeting Location

January 18, 2024


NANOG 90 Keynote: Exploring the Internet History of Meeting Location

Mark Johnson Presents “Exploring the Internet History of North Carolina”

by Elizabeth Drolet


North Carolina + The Evolution of the Internet

California, home to the prestigious UCLA and the iconic "Birth of the Internet," may first come to mind when contemplating the vibrant history of the Internet. North Carolina, however, has also played a pivotal part in the evolution of the Internet. The state, better known for being "first in flight," has a rich legacy in computer science + communications. It is, additionally, a hub for tech companies and major research institutions.

Mark Johnson is one of the Keynote speakers and will present Exploring the Internet History of North Carolina at NANOG's 90th community-wide meeting in the charming Southern city of Charlotte, NC, on Tuesday, February 13 at 10:00 (EST) at Le Méridian Charlotte.

"It's always good to have a strong sense of where you came from to move forward," Johnson said about his upcoming presentation.

"This is a unique community I can't over-geek out on. You must often dumb things down for more general audiences, but this is a technologically knowledgeable crowd, so that'll add some fun to it," he continued.

His Story

For more than 20 years, Johnson spearheaded the regional and national network activities of NC's Internet anchor, MCNC. He oversaw a remarkable 25,000-fold increase in Internet usage. He was also one of the founding board members of The Quilt, a national consortium of regional research and education network operators. 

The history of the Internet in NC is personal to Johnson, as it is also his story. As a technologist, he moved to the state in 1992, at the dawn of the public Internet. 

"I was either close personally or secondhand to some of the most interesting stories associated with the development and expansion of the Internet in North Carolina," he said. 


Local Internet Legends

Johnson plans to share some of the "local flavor" that contributed to the unique Internet history of NC. According to Johnson, early precursors to well-known global platforms, Reddit and Zoom, took place in the state. USENET, an Internet-based network of discussion groups (and the early ancestor of Reddit) was created by two university staff members in 1979. In addition, MCNC had the "first high-quality interactive video conferencing using the internet for transport." 

"We had been experimenting with transporting the video over IP with an NC State professor and knew it could work. So, between the end of classes in December of '99 and the first of the year, we switched out our whole network to do interactive multi-site video conferencing over the IP network. So, that was pretty exciting," he said. 

Innovation Requires Collaboration

Call it Southern hospitality — a spirit of collaboration unique to the region played an essential role in the evolution of the Internet. Innovation requires collaboration. Teamwork can be challenging in a cutting-edge industry like technology. 

Due to the proximity of the three major research universities, the Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina is known as "the Research Triangle." UNC (the University of North Carolina at Chapel-Hill), Duke University, and NC State University are all located at most 25 miles from each other. Despite being well-known rivals on the basketball court, the noteworthy sharing of knowledge between the universities was a game-changer to the progression of the Internet. 

"We're able to collaborate well together. This made a big difference. It was normal for faculty and students to get books or other materials from the other libraries in the big three universities. So that kind of cooperation extended into the IT space. Having MCNC in the middle of a neutral third party was helpful, and that was a function of good leadership at state government," he said. 


According to Johnson, video conferencing was developed initially to allow cooperation among people doing research in microelectronics but then expanded to the medical schools in North Carolina, revolutionizing medical school education.

"The medical schools have this notion of 'grand rounds' where the residents will present cases to each other and the attending physicians. Well, because we had this (at the time ground-breaking) video network, they could do that, not just at one university but at three simultaneously. And that video network eventually expanded to all the UNC system campuses, which had remote classes delivered back and forth across institutions," he said. 

Johnson stresses the importance of creating an environment for effective partnerships to flourish.

"This may be why we achieved the things you didn't see happen in Boston, for example, which had Harvard and MIT and other universities. Harvard and MIT are practically walking distance from each other, and we were able to work together in areas that they were more competitive about," he said.

Register Now for NANOG 90

Johnson looks forward to sharing more personal anecdotes shaping the state's Internet landscape during his Keynote presentation. Check out the NANOG 90 Agenda + sync your calendar today. Register here for NANOG 90.



Elizabeth Drolet

Elizabeth Drolet is NANOG's Multimedia Story Producer

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