Almanac

News - April 6, 2011

Internet trailblazer Paul Baran dies at 84

by Dave Boyce

Paul Baran, a former resident of Atherton, a native of Eastern Europe and the thinker behind digital packet switching, the elegant concept that underlies the World Wide Web, has died.

Mr. Baran was a 2007 inductee into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio, and co-founded the Palo Alto-based Institute for the Future. He died March 26 at the age of 84.

Mr. Baran started seven companies, five of which went public, his collaborator Stephen Millard told the Almanac for a 2007 cover story associated with Mr. Baran's Hall of Fame induction. Technologies based on his inventions include high-speed Internet access (DSL), wireless networking, and Internet phone service, Mr. Millard said.

As an inventor, Mr. Baran kept at it in defiance of his age. At 80, he told the Almanac that he was involved with "a couple of start-ups," about which he would smile secretively but not elaborate.

Asked whether his later inventions measured up to packet switching, he replied: "No, that's a pretty hard one to beat. After that, it's all down hill."

Packet switching is fundamental to the efficiency and hardiness of the Internet. In a nutshell, it takes a digital entity such as an e-mail attachment or the playing of a Youtube video and disassembles it into thousands of meticulously identified packets of bits and bytes. Those packets are then sent along random paths through a mesh-like network of servers, and reassembled in the right order at the right time at the right computer.

On most days, it happens so cleanly and quickly that we are never the wiser.

The Internet was vulnerable, Mr. Baran said, because damage to one server could isolate whole groups of other servers. Packet switching dramatically lowers risk of network failure in cases of physical damage to its components, whether by lightning or terrorist attack.

"I didn't invent everything. I just took whatever ideas were around and patched them together," he said. "The obvious step was 'Make (the network) like a fish net so there is no central node,'" In such a distributed network, information may be blocked on one path but can take another at every node.

Packet switching also lowers costs. "You can now build this network out of (comparable) junk," he said. "It used to be we had to gold-plate everything. This one works around failure. That's why it's become the way we build networks today."

"What could be simpler or more elegant? What could be harder to imagine," Paul Saffo, an admirer of Mr. Baran and a co-founder of the Institute for the Future, said for the 2007 story.

Mr. Saffo described Mr. Baran as "delightful" and "refreshingly self-effacing. He is so generous in sharing credit with others, almost to a fault. He is old-school Silicon Valley, the 'Show no chrome' generation. He's kind of the polar opposite of (Oracle Corp. founder) Larry Ellison. I'll bet you he (Baran) flies coach.

"We need more of that in the Valley," Mr. Saffo added. "I'm grateful for his many innovations, but I admire him most for his outlook on life, and it's something that the rest of us should strive to emulate."

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