The idealistic Glaucon returns to the agora in search of further wisdom. Disillusioned by what he has seen of the modern web and the internet in general, he has instead been inspired by what he has lately learned outside the agora of internet culture of the 80s and 90s. Confident in Socrates’ wisdom, he petitions him for knowledge. Socrates explains the technical historical context of BBSes, Usenet, UUCP, and NNTP—as Adeimantus, Thrasymachus, and the eccentric newcomer Pyrrhus look on. Socrates’ history culminates in the beginnings of a crash course in the fundamental routing protocol of the Internet: the Border Gateway Protocol.
In order of appearance:
- Glaucon, a Cretin visitor to the agora, with grand ideals of freedom and minimalism in computing
- Socrates, famed philosopher-engineer of Athens
- Adeimantus, a Cretin regular
- Thrasymachus, an Ithacan regular
- Pyrrhus, an eccentric Epirote who first visited the agora around the same time as Glaucon
The citizens in the agora have been discussing the finer points of mail servers, conversational automata, and correctly naming characters in Sailor Moon, before Glaucon poses his question.
Glaucon: Socrates, do you know what FidoNet and Usenet are?
Glaucon: what’s the difference between them?
Glaucon: I still don’t understand
Socrates: Usenet was a network of NNTP servers
Socrates: FidoNet was a network of bulletin board systems
Socrates: NNTP is a sister protocol to email, which had shared roots in using what was basically SCP to copy people’s mail and files around
Socrates: BBSes were basically someone who said “what if I put a custom login shell on my home SSH connection a la netris.rocketnine.space
Glaucon: but I’ve heard people use FidoNet to connect to Usenet?
Socrates: yes, in the same way that you can use some SSH shell server to connect to IRC
Socrates: NNTP services were not something afforded to home users at the beginning of the Internet
Socrates: so a BBS service that did have access to Usenet was a good springboard
Socrates: that some of these BBS services peered with each other is separate
Glaucon: right, BBS was a weird custom connection to a server which had email and connections with other users and stuff, but you couldn’t just Telnet in usually, you needed the software?
Glaucon: I’m lost then
Glaucon: go on
A strange game
$ ssh netris.rocketnine.space
Socrates: enjoy a game, get back to me in 5
Glaucon, Adeimantus, and Thrasymachus each try the game.
Adeimantus: wow, better than BSD
Socrates: good, right?
Glaucon: I didn’t know you could do something like this with SSH
Glaucon: the latency is non-existent
Socrates: imagine now that you did this via Telnet
Socrates: and imagine instead of Tetris it was something like a modern (well, late 00s I guess now) web forum
Glaucon: was I supposed to play multiplayer to test?
Socrates: I don’t really mind as long as you get the picture
Socrates: this is what a BBS was
Adeimantus: except with awesome ASCII art
Socrates: yes, in the late BBS age, there were experiments in using other protocols, usually for more advanced graphical capabilities
Socrates: FidoNet likewise was a popular experiment, but an experiment nonetheless
Glaucon: even with stronger PCs, I still don’t get it
Glaucon: why did we stop?
Socrates: AOL, basically 2
The genealogy of network forums
Socrates: BBSes still exist to this day
Socrates: firstly as web forums
Socrates: now as Reddit
Socrates: there are still some hangers-on who use þe olde style BBSes, but Reddit is a direct descendant, via web forums
Glaucon: so Usenet is sort of like a more versatile FidoNet?
Glaucon: I still don’t get how they relate
Socrates: they don’t
Glaucon: so that Tetris game was supposed to be FidoNet?
Glaucon: or Usenet?
Glaucon: oh okay
Socrates: of which FidoNet was an overlaid network
Socrates: BBSes were like forums
Glaucon: BBS is a custom Telnet, FidoNet was a network of them, and Usenet is more like proto-Internet?
Glaucon: but that’s an accurate description of BBS?
Socrates: BBSes were just software running on a server
Socrates: you still had to connect like Telnet
Socrates: but it was no more custom than SSH to Netris is “custom” SSH
Socrates: make sense?
Socrates: (i.e., it’s not at all custom, just instead of launching
bash, it launches another application)
Socrates: SSH/Telnet remained unchanged
Glaucon: right that’s what I meant
Glaucon: you jack into a program as opposed to the terminal 3
The golden age of email
Socrates: OK, we know how BBSes worked (and are)
Socrates: let’s talk about the birth of email and NNTP
Socrates: we’re going properly back now to pre-ARPANET days
Socrates: back in the old days, every computer was a universe unto itself—networking didn’t exist, and I don’t even mean LANs
Glaucon: well you could have multiple terminals connected to one computer
Socrates: computers with multiple terminals were really just screens and keyboards with really long cables
Socrates: and terminals weren’t computers
Socrates: they were literally just human interface devices that had serial out the back
Glaucon: well a teletype could be a terminal
Glaucon: it’s just an access point
Socrates: you could send “mail” to a user by essentially writing a file, sending it the mail daemon, that could parse and distribute copies of that into people’s own home directories, when you couldn’t directly
Socrates: so you could write to Alice and Bob, and the server would insert that mail file into their
Socrates: this was good
Socrates: in fact, this was basically peak email—it’s all been downhill ever since
Glaucon: I understand so far
Glaucon: but what’s a daemon?
Glaucon: I read that term a few days ago and was like
Surprised by this confession of ignorance, Adeimantus interrupts, attracting the attention of Pyrrhus, another newcomer.
what’s a daemon? really?
Glaucon: okay okay, go on
Pyrrhus: A daemon is just a program that can run without user input strictly required
Socrates: a daemon is just server software
httpd = http daemon = Apache
Socrates: see also: systemd
Adeimantus: he said the s-word
Pyrrhus: Inb4 systemD is botnet
Adeimantus: see, there it goes
After a brief scuffle about systemd, Socrates’ lesson resumes.
Socrates: anyway, some bastard decided it would be cool if MIT could speak to Berkeley to share projects, and ARPA (later DARPA) decided
shit man, it would be really cool if we could do this in the military, too
Socrates: so ARPA paid a lot of money for research, and experimental campus-to-campus networking that connected MIT to Berkeley to Los Alamos, etc
Socrates: let me get the map
Socrates: (or https://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/b/bf/Arpanet_logical_map%2C_march_1977.png)
Socrates: this network came about, and someone said,
sure would be cool if I could mail Peter at Berkeley, like I could mail Alice here
Socrates: then someone said
well we have this tool called
uucp [Unix-to-Unix copy, basically the granddaddy of
scp], and mail messages are just files—why not hack them together?
Glaucon: I have a feeling I don’t know what
Glaucon: because I’m just thinking of anomalies 4
cp, but over SSH
Glaucon: ah okay
$ scp dick.png firstname.lastname@example.org:pics/
Socrates: secure copy (via SSH)
Glaucon: whatever file you wanted to send
Glaucon: mail or image or whatever
$ uucp meme.png email@example.com:memes/
Glaucon: or whatever
Socrates: close enough
Socrates: now, like I said, it’s all starting to get complicated
Socrates: and this is where NNTP and email begin to diverge
Socrates: but at this point, sending files and sending emails were one and the same thing: via UUCP
Socrates: back then routing wasn’t that fancy, so you’d say something like
socratespc!freenode!glauconspc!glaucon to specify the path
Socrates: but that’s besides the point
Pyrrhus: Works well until the route is 200 computers
uucp: command not found
# apt install uucp
Pyrrhus: I’m running Gentoo
# emerge uucp then, fuck
Adeimantus: do I have to do everything around here?
Protocols vs networks
Socrates: someone realized that actually being able to have some kind of mailing list where everyone could subscribe would be pretty cool, and you could all message each other on various topics, share files, etc
Socrates: so they wrote news servers, which were like mail servers, but they handled many channels inside of them rather than users, and delivered the contents to users via mail
comp.lang.python would be about computers->languages->python
Socrates: so everyone could shitpost in real time on their local news server
Socrates: and then, every night, when the lines were open (they were still dial-up style connections, even between universities at the cutting edge of research in those days)
Socrates: they would connect to their peers and copy the day’s news file to everyone else
Socrates: and those spread throughout the network
Socrates: eventually, this system grew and developed into a fully defined protocol called NNTP
Socrates: these individual servers don’t have to talk to anyone in particular, but the biggest and most commonly used news network was called Usenet
Glaucon: oh I thought it was like, a protocol
Glaucon: but it was a specific network
Glaucon: for news
Socrates: Usenet is to NNTP as freenode is to IRC
Glaucon: kinda like how QuakeNet started out being for Quake players to find matches and just became one of the biggest servers over time
Socrates: Usenet was even more dominant though
Socrates: pretty much the only other networks were tiny
Socrates: Usenet became the network, in the same way that the Internet is the inter-network-network
Glaucon: even though the Internet is just a network, the protocol is HTTP
Glaucon: but because it’s so ubiquitous we think of it as the way of connecting itself sometimes?
Socrates: well, no, the Internet isn’t HTTP; the web is
Glaucon: right right, the world wide web is HTTP
Socrates: anyway, NNTP went down this whole path by itself, and eventually was entirely diverged, as email made its own evolution from very simple local mail servers into its own fully fledged SMTP system
Glaucon: so NNTP isn’t the protocol we use for email now, SMTP is?
Socrates: correct. NNTP became specialized in managing news lists, which were basically bundled and federated mailing lists
Socrates: usually your Usenet address was the same as your email address, back when you were
firstname.lastname@example.org or whatever
Socrates: they gave you the same account on both their mail server and their news server
Socrates: (though you’d usually have to pay extra for them to turn on access to the news server)
Socrates: (same as if they gave you web space like
Glaucon: so BBS is just a connection to a specific software on a remote computer, email is SMTP used for mailing, and NNTP is a protocol used for news lists?
Socrates: pretty much
Glaucon: the Internet is a network, the web is a host of sites that are connected via HTTP, FidoNet is a network of BBSes
Socrates: BBS is just an interactive (usually bespoke) bit of interactive software you can Telnet to instead of landing in a shell
Glaucon: a BBS is just software running on a computer? it doesn’t refer to the server itself?
Socrates: BBS is just software, same as an ircd (IRC daemon) (freenode’s is called ircd-seven)
Socrates: Apache’s technical name is
Glaucon: and Usenet is a network of news lists?
Glaucon: it just gets confusing because the usage of these things overlap
Socrates: but the problem is the Internet exists at a layer underpinning all these
Clue through the labyrinth
Glaucon: So who runs the Internet, exactly?
Glaucon: Is it DARPA still?
Socrates: no one, it’s a collaboration
Socrates: the Internet is exactly as it sounds: inter-networked networks
Glaucon: how are they connected?
Glaucon: satellites? landlines?
Socrates: consider a university
Socrates: it has its own computer. later, it has its own network as they buy several computers and plug them together
Socrates: we have all these universities, and they have computers that are all linked together
Socrates: for simplicity, you’ve given them all unique integer names
Socrates: so you can
ssh socrates@1 to get to server 1
Socrates: it would be nice to connect this network to another university’s network, so you plug all the computers together
Socrates: and you’ll remember a while back I mentioned that you would route between computers with UUCP like
Socrates: my uni doesn’t have a direct link to your uni
Socrates: so we need to bounce through some intermediary, possibly several, to get to your PC
Socrates: in fact, let’s do an experiment now
Socrates: pop a shell, and
traceroute 126.96.36.199 (the Google DNS server)
Glaucon: uhh, not a command I have
Glaucon: I’m on Windows 10 right now
Socrates: OK, give me a moment
Socrates: you should get something like this:
C:\Users\Socrates>tracert 188.8.131.52 Tracing route to dns.google [184.108.40.206] over a maximum of 30 hops: 1 1 ms 1 ms 2 ms 192.0.2.254 2 17 ms 36 ms 1 ms 203-0-113-214.example.net [203.0.113.214] 3 2 ms 1 ms 1 ms 203-0-113-17.fglt.nl.example.net [203.0.113.17] 4 11 ms 13 ms 11 ms 203-0-113-18.fglt.nl.example.net [203.0.113.18] 5 43 ms 43 ms 43 ms 198.51.100.179 6 45 ms 44 ms 44 ms 198.51.100.178 7 43 ms 44 ms 44 ms 198.51.100.1 8 45 ms 44 ms 45 ms dns.google [220.127.116.11] Trace complete.
Glaucon: is this all the nodes my PC has to get through to, for example, ping Google’s DNS?
Socrates: we’ll rename nodes soon, and it’ll make more sense
Socrates: so, we’re back in the day, and everyone can just remember that to get from my computer to someone else’s, we need to jump through these servers
Socrates: in the end, the network kept growing, so they decided that some other method would have to be done
Glaucon: At first, there’s a few computers, and only a few directories you’ll be sending to, and it’s easy to do it manually
Glaucon: but as the network grows, it needs to be automated, and there needs to be standardized targets for files to be sent to?
Socrates: so everyone had these local campus networks where every computer had a locally unique number as a name
Socrates: only 1 computer, probably the oldest one, actually connected to peers
Socrates: when things got bigger, we decided that we’d say
this central computer (5) can see computers 9, 17, 12, and 3 on its own network
Socrates: and it would tell the other computers it connected to at other campuses this
Glaucon: tells them how?
Socrates: just, magically for now
Socrates: say, MIT’s central computer was 91
Socrates: someone on machine 92 at MIT asks 91, its gateway computer, to send an email to
Socrates: MIT looks up all the announcements it has seen, and notices that the last computer that announced 9 was 5, my university’s gateway
Socrates: so it sets up the link 92—91—5—9
Socrates: so my friend’s PC—MIT gateway—Athens gateway—Socrates’ PC
Socrates: now, here’s the big jump
Socrates: Berkeley is way out in California, it’s several times as far from Athens as MIT is
Socrates: I’m never going to connect to California directly
Socrates: however, Berkeley to MIT is a connection that does exist
Socrates: Berkeley is, say, 173, and has 174–179
Socrates: it announces to all its peers, including MIT (91), that it hosts 174–179
Socrates: when I want to email
socrates@9, this is what happens:
Socrates: 9 asks 5 (Athens gateway) for 174
Socrates: 5 (Athens gateway) doesn’t have it, so it looks towards its peers to see if they know
Socrates: none of them do, but 92 (MIT) says
ah yeah, I have a peer, 173 (Berkeley) that has 175; send it through me
Socrates: so it goes
socrates@9—5 (Athens)—91 (MIT)—173 (Berkeley)—
Socrates: these numbers are the names of the nodes you see in
Socrates: they are Inter-net[work] Protocol addresses
Socrates: routers are gateways that sit on the borders of their own networks and connect to computers that likewise sit at the border of their own network
Socrates: in this case, 5, 91, and 173 for the routers at Athens, MIT, and Berkeley, and they announce the IPs they host, as well as the networks their peers host, and that their peers’ peers host
I know a guy who knows a guy
Glaucon: so in the early days, did computers connected to these networks have routers?
Glaucon: or was it software?
Glaucon: For example, having the gateway computer handle the routing, as opposed to a designated single router
Socrates: in the early days, every computer was general
Socrates: so you’d have a computer that was your computer to do stuff on via a serial terminal
Socrates: that computer had a mail server for sending mail to other users on that server
Glaucon: So could I theoretically use a router as a computer?
Socrates: and vice versa, your laptop could be a router
Socrates: all at same time as normal
Glaucon: right, kinda like using your phone as a hotspot?
Socrates: its all just software
Glaucon: right right
Glaucon: routing software
Socrates: so we have local networks, where some machines on those networks are connected deeply to their own network, but also to the borders of other networks, acting as gateways
Socrates: the protocol they use to announce these links and the routes that you can use to get from one computer to another, is called BGP, the Border Gateway Protocol
Socrates: each BGP peer has an Autonomous System Number—don’t worry about the name on that one—and they announce the IP prefixes they can route to
Socrates: each ISP is allotted a certain group of IPs
Socrates: so they host the prefix
203.0.113.0/24 (24 bits i.e. 3x bytes
203.0.113 and then 8 bits left at the end)
Glaucon: and whoever they provide Internet service to, gets assigned an IP?
Socrates: they say to their peers,
I’m AS64501, and I host
Socrates: so all the other routers they are connected to know that
203.0.113.99 is by that router
Socrates: they can also announce to their peers the router downstream of them
Socrates: so say you have AS64502—AS64503—AS64504
Socrates: AS64502 says
I have to AS64503
Socrates: AS64503 says to AS64504:
203.0.113.0/24 [as a downstream peer]
Socrates: so now AS64504 knows that if they want to get
198.51.100.15, that goes to AS64503
Socrates: if they want to get
203.0.113.99, they send it to AS64503 as well, who knows to send it to AS64502, who has the IP proper
Glaucon: so an ISP is like a general gateway?
Glaucon: and BGP is the protocol that links ISPs together?
Socrates: an ISP is just one kind of network, usually selling access to their network, but more importantly to the rest of the Internet, via their router
Socrates: this is how the chain in
tracert output is formed
Glaucon: you could use a ham radio’s server as an “ISP” if you wanted
Socrates: yep, and people do
Socrates: in fact, a lot of finance companies have radio networks
Socrates: the point is that the Internet doesn’t really care about the physical medium
Socrates: you can route over Ethernet, radio, fiber-optic, or printed-out packet data, scanned, after being transported by pigeon
Glaucon: IPoAC 5
Socrates: all that needs to happen is that routers can resolve a route from beginning to end via the IP prefixes they know about
Glaucon: it just cares about the protocol?
Socrates: “the” protocol?
Glaucon: BGP? You mentioned it, and didn’t explain it
Glaucon: you said BGP is to the Internet as HTTP is to the web
Socrates: right. you asked earlier
how do routers tell each other what IPs they have
Socrates: BGP is the protocol that routers use to announce to their peers what IPs they own or can reach on their behalf
Glaucon: so let’s say my router is connected to my next door neighbor’s router
Glaucon: we’re crazy and we physically connected them with a very long cable
Socrates: that’s how most of the world does it
Socrates: very long cables across the ocean
Glaucon: let’s say he has two computers in connected to his router
Glaucon: I’m gonna send an email, but not to my friend
Glaucon: I’m gonna send it to someone in Zimbabwe
Glaucon: I send the email
Glaucon: Does my router, ask both my friend’s router, as well as the ISP’s gateway about that IP I’m looking for?
Glaucon: does it contact every gateway it’s directly connected to, and whichever does actually have the gateway responds?
Glaucon: and what if I want to connect directly to my friend, and I can connect directly through his router, or by going through the ISP and back, can my router figure out that one router has a shorter route, and automatically chose that?
Mr. Osborne, may I be excused?
Socrates: you’ll notice so far that everything I’ve spoken about so far has a linear network
Socrates: everyone has at most 2 router peers—their left and their right
Socrates: really this needs a diagram
Socrates: want me to make one up for you?
Socrates: it’ll help a lot
Despite his litany of questions, Glaucon suddenly realises he is exhausted.
Glaucon: Uhh, can we do this in the morning
Glaucon: I’m extremely curious
Socrates: I’m glad
Glaucon: and having trouble keeping my eyes open
Socrates: BGP is the biggest monster on the Internet
Socrates: everyone has been hiding under the covers and pretending its not under the bed
Socrates: for years
Socrates: and you’ll see why tomorrow
Glaucon: Well, it’s rare I get someone so knowledgeable that’s so willing to share
Glaucon says his goodbyes, and leaves the agora for bed.
Later that evening, Socrates speaks to Thrasymachus.
Socrates: did you see my BGP explainer earlier?
Thrasymachus: Yeah but I haven’t read it thoroughly
Socrates: probably for the best
Thrasymachus: No, I’ll read it, a) don’t assume I know a lot, b) even if I did notice something wrong, it’s not like he’s not getting amazing value for money
Socrates: tbh its close enough anyway
Thrasymachus: I do soak up some BGP stuff, but mostly they keep me out of it and firmly at a command line
Thrasymachus: People get high-paying jobs basically out of making BGP work properly
Socrates: I’ve touched BGP once, and it was not a good experience
Socrates: even the experienced guy was like
tbh we’ll see what happens if we make the news for blackholing the city
In 1993, America Online’s aggressively marketed consumer internet plans led to a massive influx of new users to Usenet that overwhelmed the established culture there. This is generally referred to as “the September that never ended”, named for the month in which a more manageable influx of new users joining from American universities had been expected in prior years. ↩
Glaucon very likely means
…as opposed to a command-line shell, such as Bash or Korn shell. ↩
Internet Protocol over Avian Carriers, an April Fool’s Day “Request For Comment” (a de-facto internet standard), RFC 1149. While very tongue-in-cheek, the protocol does actually work, and neatly demonstrates the principle of the Internet’s independence from physical transmission media. ↩