Calit2’s Larry Smarr on the Origins of the Internet, Innovations in IT, and Insights on the Path Ahead (Part I)

9/30/09Follow @bvbigelow

After establishing himself as a leading expert on computing and information technology, including the Internet and World Wide Web, Larry Smarr left the comfort of a job that was tailored for him at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, for a position in San Diego that offered an even better fit. In 2000, Smarr was hired as a professor of computer science and engineering at UC San Diego—and almost exactly nine years ago, he was named the founding director of the California Institute for Telecommunications and Information Technology.

Today, Smarr (who also is a San Diego Xconomist) describes the institute, pronounced “Cal-IT-squared” (and known in official shorthand as Calit2), as a framework for collaboration among students and researchers throughout the University of California system, as well as industry. In the first half of this two-part article, Smarr and I discussed his role in the development of the Internet and the factors that help encourage technology innovation. Because the institute emphasizes and encourages cross-disciplinary research, Smarr refers to Calit2’s affiliated centers as “loci for innovation,” with federal funding totaling more than $400 million since 2000.

Calit2 logoAs a researcher, Smarr also has continued working to develop technologies that combine optical networks, supercomputing, and grid technologies for use in the next-generation Internet. He views Calit2 as a “time machine” because the advanced capabilities of the institute’s high-performance network enable researchers to develop software applications five or 10 years before they can be deployed commercially. That’s something that could be true of any academic research center, although innovations developed for the Internet may stand in a class by themselves. (Smarr talks about the path forward and four big ideas in Part 2 of my story here.)

Smarr, who turns 61 on Oct. 16, traces the origins of the Internet to the early 1970s and the technical work done by Vint Cerf, Leonard Kleinrock, Robert Kahn, and others on the ARPAnet, the computer network developed by the Pentagon’s Advanced Research Projects Agency. By the mid-1980s, though, Smarr’s own career became intertwined with the development of the Internet. He was named in 1985 as founding director of the National Center for Supercomputing Applications, or NCSA, at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. During his tenure over the next 15 years, NCSA researchers, including Marc Andreessen, developed the first graphical Web browser (Mosaic) and technology that formed the basis of the popular Web server now known as Apache.

Because of the work done at the NCSA, which later became part of the National Computational Science Alliance, Smarr says he came to view … Next Page »

Bruce V. Bigelow is the editor of Xconomy San Diego. You can e-mail him at or call (619) 669-8788 Follow @bvbigelow

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