To learn more about the origins of The Network is the Computer®, I spoke with John Gage, the creator of the phrase and the 21st employee of Sun Microsystems. John had a key role in shaping the vision of Sun and had a lot to share about his vision for the future. Listen to our conversation here and read the full transcript below.
John Graham-Cumming: I’m talking to John Gage who was what, the 21st employee of Sun Microsystems, which is what Wikipedia claims and it also claims that you created this phrase “The Network is the Computer,” and that’s actually one of the things I want to talk about with you a little bit because I remember when I was in Silicon Valley seeing that slogan plastered about the place and not quite understanding what it meant. So do you want to tell me what you meant by it or what Sun meant by it at the time?
John Gage: Well, in 2019, recalling what it meant in 1982 or 83’ will be colored by all our experience since then but at the time it seemed so obvious that when we introduced the first scientific workstations, they were not very powerful computers. The first Suns had a giant screen and they were on the Internet but they were designed as a complementary component to supercomputers. Bill Joy and I had a series of diagrams for talks we’d give, and Bill had the bi-modal, the two node picture. The serious computing occurred on the giant machines where you could fly into the heart of a black hole and the human interface was the workstation across the network. So each had to complement the other, each built on the strengths of the other, and each enhanced the other because to deal in those days with a supercomputer was very ugly. And to run all your very large computations, you could run them on a Sun because we had virtual memory and series of such advanced things but not fast. So the speed of scientific understanding is deeply affected by the tools the scientist has — is it a microscope, is it an optical telescope, is it a view into the heart of a star by running a simulation on a supercomputer? You need to have the loop with the human and the science constantly interacting and constantly modifying each other, and that’s what the network is for, to tie those different nodes together in as seamless a way as possible. Then, the instant anyone that’s ever created a programming language says, “so if I have to create a syntax of this where I’m trying to let you express, do this, how about the delay on the network, the latency”? Does your phrase “The Network is the Computer” really capture this hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, millions perhaps at that time, now billions and billions and billions today, all these devices interacting and exchanging state with latency, with delay. It’s sort of an oversimplification, and that we would point out, but it’s just network is the computer. Four words, you know, what we tried to do is give a metaphor that allows you to explore it in your mind and think of new things to do and be inspired.
Graham-Cumming: And then by a sort of strange sequence of events, that was a trademark of Sun. It got abandoned. And now Cloudflare has swooped in and trademarked it again. So now it’s our trademark which sort of brings us full circle, I suppose.
Gage: Well, trademarks are dealing with the real world, but the inspiration of Cloudflare is to do exactly what Bill Joy and I were talking about in 1982. It’s to build an environment in which every participant globally can share with security, and we were not as strong. Bill wrote most of the code of TCP/IP implemented by every other computer vendor, and still these questions of latency, these questions of distributed denial of service which was, how do you block that? I was so happy to see that Cloudflare invests real money and real people in addressing those kinds of critical problems, which are at the core, what will destroy the Internet.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, I agree. I mean, it is a significant investment to actually deal with it and what I think people don’t appreciate about the DDoS attack situation is that they are going on all the time and it’s just a continuous, you know, just depends who the target is. It’s funny you mentioned TCP/IP because about 10 years after, so in about ‘92, my first real job, I had to write a TCP/IP stack for an obscure network card. And this was prior to the Internet really being available everywhere. And so I didn’t realize I could go and get the BSD implementation and recompile it. So I did it from scratch from the RFCs.
Gage: You did!
Graham-Cumming: And the thing I recommend here is that nobody ever does that because, you know, the real world, real code that really interacts is really hard when you’re trying to work it with other things, so.
Gage: Do you still, John, do you have that code?
Graham-Cumming: I wonder. I have the binary for it.
Gage: Do hunt for it, because our story was at the time DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, that had funded networking initiatives around the world. I just had a discussion yesterday with Norway and they were one of the first entities to implement using essentially Bill Joy’s code, but to be placed on the ARPANET. And a challenge went out, and at that time the slightly older generation, the Bolt Beranek and Newman Group, Vint Cerf, Bob Con, those names, as Vint Cerf was a grad student at UCLA where he had built one of the four first Internet sites and the DARPA offices were in Arlington, Virginia, they had massive investments in detection of nuclear underground tests, so seismological data, and the moment we made the very first Suns, I shipped them to DARPA, we got the network up and began serving seismic data globally. Really lovely visualization of events. If you’re trying to detect something, those things go off and then there’s a distinctive signature, a collapse of the underground cavern after. So DARPA had tried to implement, as you did, from the spec, from the RFC, the components, and Vint had designed a lot of this, all the acknowledgement codes and so forth that you had to implement in TCP/IP. So Bill, as a graduate student at Berkeley, we had a meeting in Arlington at DARPA headquarters where BBN and AT&T Bell Labs and a number of other people were in the room. Their code didn’t work, this graduate student from Berkeley named Bill Joy, his code did work, and when Bob Kahn and Vint Cerf asked Bill, “Well, so how did you do it?” What he said was exactly what you just said, he said, “I just read the spec and wrote the code.”
Graham-Cumming: I do remember very distinctly because the company I was working at didn’t have a TCP/IP stack and we didn’t have any IP machines, right, we were doing actually stuff that was all IBM networking, SMA stuff. Somehow we bought what was at that point a HP machine, it was an Apollo workstation and a Sun workstation. I had them on Ethernet and talking to each other. And I do distinctly remember the first time a ping packet came back from that Sun box, saying, yes I managed to send you an IP packet, you managed to send me ICMP response and that was pretty magical. And then I got to TCP and that was hard.
Gage: That was hard. Yeah. When you get down to the details, the spec can be wrong. I mean, it will want you to do something that’s a stupid thing to do. So Bill has such good taste in these things. It would be interesting to do a kind of a diff across the various implementations of the stack. Years and years later we had maybe 50 companies all assemble in a room, only engineers, throw out all the marketing people and all the Ps and VPs and every company in this room—IBM, Hewlett-Packard—oh my God, Hewlett-Packard, fix your TCP—and we just kept going until everybody could work with everybody else in sort of a pact. We’re not going to reveal, Honeywell, that you guys were great with earlier absolute assembly code, determinate time control stuff but you have no clue about how packets work, we’ll help you, so that all of us can make every machine interoperate, which yielded the network show, Interop. Every year we would go put a bunch of fiber inside whatever, you know, Geneva, or pick some, Las Vegas, some big venue.
Graham-Cumming: I used to go to Vegas all the time and that was my great introduction to Vegas was going there for Interop, year after year.
Gage: Oh, you did! Oh, great.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, yes, yes.
Gage: You know in a way, what you’re doing with, for example, just last week with the Verizon problem, everybody implementing what you’re doing now that is not open about their mistakes and what they’ve learned and is not sharing this, it’s a problem. And your global presence to me is another absolutely critical thing. We had about, I forget, 600 engineers in Beijing at the East Gate of Tsinghua a lot of networking expertise and lots of those people are at Tencent and Huawei and those network providers throughout the rest of the world, politics comes and goes but the engineering has to be done in a way that protects us. And so these conversations globally are critical.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, that’s one of the things that’s fascinating actually about doing real things on the real Internet is there is a global community of people making computers talk to each other and you know, that it’s a tremendously complicated thing to actually make that work, and you do it across countries, across languages. But you end up actually making them work, and that’s the Internet we’re sitting on, that you and I are talking on right now that is based on those conversations around the world.
Gage: And only by doing it do you understand more deeply how to do it. It’s very difficult in the abstract to say what should happen as we begin to spread. As Sun grew, every major city in Africa had installations and for network access, you were totally dependent on an often very corrupt national telco or the complications dealing with these people just to make your packet smooth. And as it turned out, many of the intelligence and military entities in all of these countries had very little understanding of any of this. That’s changed to some degree. But the dangerous sides of the Internet. Total surveillance, IPv6, complete control of exact identity of origins of packets. We implemented, let’s see, you had an early Sun. We probably completed our IPv6 implementation, was it still fluid in the 90s, but I remember 10 years after we finished a complete implementation of IPv6, the U.S. was still IPv4, it’s still IPv4.
Graham-Cumming: It still is, it still is. Pretty much. Except for the mobile carriers right now. I think in general the mobile phone operators are the ones who’ve gone more into IPv6 than anybody else.
Gage: It was remarkable in China. We used to have a conference. We’d bring a thousand Chinese universities into a room. Professor Wu from Tsinghua who built the Chinese Education and Research Network, CERNET. And now a thousand universities have a building on campus doing Internet research. We would get up and show this map of China and he kept his head down politically, but he managed at the point when there was a big fight between the Minister of Telecom and the Minister of Railways. The Minister of Railways said, look, I have continuity throughout China because I have railines. I’ve just made a partnership with the People’s Liberation Army, and they are essentially slave labor, and they’re going to dig the ditches, and I’m going to run fiber alongside the railways and I don’t care what you, the Minister of Telecommunications, has to say about it, because I own the territory. And that created a separate pathway for the backbone IPv6 network in China. Cheap, cheap, cheap, get everybody doing things.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, now of course in China that’s resulted in an interesting situation where you have China Telecom and China Unicom, who sort of cooperate with each other but they’re almost rivals which makes IP packets quite difficult to route inside China.
Gage: Yes exactly. At one point I think we had four hunks of China. Everyone was geographically divided. You know there were meetings going on, I remember the moment they merged the telecom ministry with the electronics ministry and since we were working with both of them, I walk in a room and there’s a third group, people I didn’t know, it turns out that’s the People’s Liberation Army.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, they’re part of the team. So okay, going back to this “Network is the Computer” notion. So you were talking about the initial things that you were doing around that, why is it that it’s okay that Cloudflare has gone out and trademarked that phrase now, because you seem to think that we’ve got a leg to stand on, I guess.
Gage: Frankly, I’d only vaguely heard of Cloudflare. I’ve been working in areas, I’ve got a project in the middle of Nairobi in the slum where I’ve spent the last 15 years or so learning a lot about clean water and sewage treatment because we have almost 400,000 people in a very small area, biggest slum in East Africa. How can you introduce sanitary water and clean sewage treatment into a very, an often corrupt, a very difficult environment, and so that’s been a fascination of mine and I’ve been spending a lot of time. What’s a computer person know about fluid dynamics and pathogens? There’s a lot to learn. So as you guys grew so rapidly, I vaguely knew of you but until I started reading your blog about post-quantum crypto and how do we devise a network in these resilient denial of service attacks and all these areas where you’re a growing company, it’s very hard to take time to do serious advanced research-level work on distributed computing and distributed security, and yet you guys are doing it. When Bill created Java, the subsequent step from Java for billions and billions of devices to share resources and share computations was something we call Genie which is a framework for validation of who you are, movement of code from device to device in a secure way, total memory control so that someone is not capable of taking over memory in your device as we’ve seen with Spectre and the failures of these billions of Intel chips out there that all have a flaw on take all branches parallel compute implementations. So the very hardware you’re using can be insecure so your operating systems are insecure, the hardware is insecure, and yet you’re trying to build on top with fallible pieces in infallible systems. And you’re in the middle of this, John, which I’m so impressed by.
Graham-Cumming: And Jini sort of lives on as called Apache River now. It moved away from Sun and into an Apache project.
Gage: Yes, very few people seem to realize that the name Apache is a poetic phrasing of “a patchy system.” We patch everything because everything is broken. We moved a lot of it, Brian Behlendorf and the Apache group. Well, many of the innovations at Sun, Java is one, file systems that are far more secure and far more resilient than older file systems, the SPARC implementation, I think the SPARC processor, even though you’re using the new ARM processors, but Fujitsu, I still think keeps the SPARC architecture as the world’s fastest microprocessor.
Graham-Cumming: Right. Yes. Being British of course, ARM is a great British success. So I’m honor-bound to use that particular architecture. Clearly.
Gage: Oh, absolutely. And the power. That was the one always in a list of what our engineering goals are. We wanted to make, we were building supercomputers, we were building very large file servers for the telcos and the banks and the intelligence agencies and all these different people, but we always wanted to make a low power and it just fell off the list of what you could accomplish and the ARM chips, their ratios of wattage to packets treated are—you have a great metric on your website someplace about measuring these things at a very low level—that’s key.
Graham-Cumming: Yes, and we had Sophie Wilson, who of course is one of the founders of ARM and actually worked on the original chip, tell this wonderful story at our Internet Summit about how the first chip they hooked up was operating fine until they realized they hadn’t hooked the power up and they were asked to. It was so low power that it was able to use the power that was coming in over the logic lines to actually power the whole chip. And they said to me, wait a minute, we haven’t plugged the power in but the thing is running, which was really, I mean that was an amazing achievement to have done that.
Gage: That’s amazing. We open sourced SPARC, the instruction set, so that anybody doing crypto that also had Fab capabilities could implement detection of ones and zeroes, sheep and goats, or other kinds of algorithms that are necessary for very high speed crypto. And that’s another aspect that I’m so impressed by Cloudflare. Cloudflare is paying attention at a machine instruction level because you’re implementing with your own hardware packages in what, 180 cities? You’re moving logistically a package into Ulan Bator, or into Mombasa and you’re coming up live.
Graham-Cumming: And we need that to be inexpensive and fast because we’re promising people that we will make their Internet properties faster and secure at the same time and that’s one of the interesting challenges which is not trading those two things off. Which means your crypto better be fast, for example, and that requires a lot of fiddling around at the hardware level and understanding it. In our case because we’re using Intel, really what Intel chips are doing at the low level.
Gage: Intel did implement a couple of things in one or another of the more recent chips that were very useful for crypto. We had a group of the SPARC engineers, probably 30, at a dinner five or six months ago discussing, yes, we set the world standard for parallel execution branching optimizations for pipelines and chips, and when the overall design is not matched by an implementation that pays attention to protecting the memory, it’s a fundamental, exploitable flaw. So a lot of discussion about this. Selecting precisely which instructions are the most important, the risk analysis with the ability to make a chip specifically to implement a particular algorithm, there’s a lot more to go. We have multiples of performance ahead of us for specific algorithms based on a more fluid way to add instructions that are necessary into a specific piece of hardware. And then we jump to quantum. Oh my.
Graham-Cumming: Yes. To talk about that a little bit, the ever-increasing speed of processors and the things we can do; Do you think we actually need that given that we’re now living in this incredibly distributed world where we are actually now running very distributed algorithms and do we really need beefier machines?
Gage: At this moment, in a way, it’s you making fun of Bill Joy for only wanting a megabit in Aspen. When Steve Jobs started NeXT, sadly his hardware was just terrible, so we sent a group over to boost NeXT. In fact we sort of secretly slipped him $30 million to keep him afloat. And I’d say, “Jobs, if you really understood something about hardware, it would really be useful here.” So one of the main team members that we sent over to NeXT came to live in Aspen and ended up networking the entire valley. At a point, megabit for what you needed to do, seemed reasonable, so at this moment, as things become alive by the introduction of a little bit of intelligence in them, some little flickering chip that’s able to execute an algorithm, many tasks don’t require. If you really want to factor things fast, quantum, quantum. Which will destroy our existing crypto systems. But if you are just bringing the billions of places where a little bit of knowledge can alter locally a little bit of performance, we could do very well with the compute power that we have right now. But making it live on the network, securely, that’s the key part. The attacks that are going on, simple errors as you had yesterday, are simple errors. In a way, across Cloudflare’s network, you’re watching the challenges of the 21st century take place: attacks, obscure, unknown exploits of devices in the power and water control systems. And so, you are in exactly the right spot to not get much sleep and feel a heavy responsibility.
Graham-Cumming: Well it certainly felt like it yesterday when we were offline for 27 minutes, and that’s when we suddenly discovered, we sort of know how many customers we have, and then we really discover when they start phoning us. Our support line had his own DDoS basically where it didn’t work anymore because so many people signed in. But yes, I think that it’s interesting your point about a little bit extra on a device somewhere can do something quite magical and then you link it up to the network and you can do a lot. What we think is going on partly is some things around AI, where large amounts of machine learning are happening on big beefy machines, perhaps in the cloud, perhaps groups of machines, and then devices are doing their own little bits of inference or recognizing faces and stuff like that. And that seems to be an interesting future where we have these devices that are actually intelligent in our pockets.
Gage: Oh, I think that’s exactly right. There’s so much power in your pocket. I’m spending a lot of time trying to catch up that little bit of mathematics that you thought you understood so many years ago and it turns out, oh my, I need a little bit of work here. And I’ve been reading Michael Jordan’s papers and watching his talks and he’s the most cited computer scientist in machine learning and he will always say, “Be very careful about the use of the phrase, ‘Artificial Intelligence’.” Maybe it’s a metaphor like “The Network is the Computer.” But, we’re doing gradient descent optimization. Is the slope going up, or is the slope going down? That’s not smart. It’s useful and the real time language translation and a lot of incredible work can occur when you’re doing phrases. There’s a lot of great pattern work you can do, but he’s out in space essentially combining differentiation and integration in a form of integral. And off we go. Are your hessians rippling in the wind? And what’s the shape of this slope? And is this actually the fastest path from here to there to constantly go downhill. Maybe it’s sometimes going uphill and going over and then downhill that’s faster. So there’s just a huge amount of new mathematics coming in this territory and each time, as we move from 2G to 3G to 4G to 5G, many people don’t appreciate that the compression algorithms changed between 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G and as a result, so much more can move into your mobile device for the same amount of power. 10 or 20 times more for the same about of power. And mathematics leads to insights and applications of it. And you have a working group in that area, I think. I tried to probe around to see if you’re hiring.
Graham-Cumming: Well you could always just come around to just ask us because we’ll probably tell you because we tend to be fairly transparent. But yes, I mean compression is definitely an area where we are interested in doing things. One of the things I first worked on at Cloudflare was a thing that did differential compression based on the insight that web pages don’t actually change that much when you hit ‘refresh’. And so it turns out that if you if you compress based on the delta from the last thing you served to someone you can actually send many orders of magnitude less data and so there’s lots of interesting things you can do with that kind of insight to save a tremendous amount of bandwidth. And so yeah, definitely compression is interesting, crypto is interesting to us. We’ve actually open sourced some of our compression improvements in zlib which was very popular compression algorithm and now it’s been picked up. It turns out that in neuroscience, because there’s a tremendous amount of data which needs compression and there are pipelines used in neuroscience where actually having better compression algorithms makes you work a lot faster. So it’s fascinating to see the sort of overspill of things we’re doing into other areas where I know nothing about what goes on inside the brain.
Gage: Well isn’t that fascinating, John. I mean here you are, the CTO of Cloudflare working on a problem that deeply affects the Internet, enabling a lot more to move across the Internet in less time with less power, and suddenly it turns into a tool for brain modeling and neuroscientists. This is the benefit. There’s a terrific initiative. I’m at Berkeley. The Jupiter notebooks created by Fernando Perez, this environment in which you can write text and code and share things. That environment, taken up by machine learning. I think it’s a major change. And the implementation of diagrams that are causal. These forms of analysis of what caused what. These are useful across every discipline and for you to model traffic and see patterns emerge and find webpages and see the delta has changed and then intelligently change the pattern of traffic in response to it, it’s all pretty much the same thing here.
Graham-Cumming: Yes and then as a mathematician, when I see things that are the same thing, I can’t help wondering what the real deep structure is underneath. There must be another layer another layer down or something. So as you know it’s this thing. There’s some other deeper layer below all this stuff.
Gage: I think this is just endlessly fascinating. So my only recommendations to Cloudflare: first, double what you’re doing. That’s so hard because as you go from 10 people to 100 people to 1,000 people to 10,000 people, it’s a different world. You are a prime example, you are global. Suddenly you’re able to deal with local authorities in 60-70 countries and deal with some of the world’s most interesting terrain and with network connectivity and moving data, surveillance, and some security of the foundation infrastructure of all countries. You couldn’t be engaged in more exciting things.
Graham-Cumming: It’s true. I mean one of the most interesting things to me is that I have grown up with the Internet when I you know I got an email address using actually the crazy JANET scheme in the UK where the DNS names were backwards. I was in Oxford and they gave me an email address and it was I think it was JGC at uk dot ac dot ox dot prg and that then at some point it flipped around and it went to DNS looked like it had won. For a long time my address was the wrong way around. I think that’s a typically British decision to be slightly different to everybody else.
Gage: Well, Oxford’s always had that style, that we’re going to do things differently. There’s an Oxford Center for the 21st century that was created by the money from a wonderful guy who had donated maybe $100 million. And they just branched out into every possible research area. But when you went to meetings, you would enter a building that was built at the time of the Raj. It was the India temple of colonialism.
Graham-Cumming: There’s quite a few of those in the UK. Are you thinking of the Martin School? James Martin. And he gave a lot of money to Oxford. Well the funny thing about that was the programming research group. The one thing they didn’t teach us really as an undergraduate was how to program which was one of the most fascinating things they have because that was a bit getting your hands dirty so you needed to let all the theory. So we learnt all the theory we did a little bit of functional programming and that was the extent of it which set me really up badly for a career in an industry. My first job I had to pretend I knew how to program and see and learn very quickly.
Gage: Oh my. Well now you’ve been writing code in Go.
Graham-Cumming: Yes. Well the thing about Go, the other Oxford thing of course is Tony Hoare, who is a professor of computer science there. He had come up with this thing called CSP (Communicating Sequential Processes) so that was a whole theory around how you do parallel execution. And so of course everybody used his formalism and I did in my doctoral thesis and so when Go came along and they said oh this how Go works, I said, well clearly that’s CSP and I know how to do this. So I can do it again.
Gage: Tony Hoare occasionally would issue a statement about something and it was always a moment. So few people seem to realize the birth of so much of what we took in the 60s, 70s, 80s, in Silicon Valley and Berkeley, derived from the Manchester Group, the virtual memory work, these innovations. Today, Whit Diffie. He used to love these Bletchley stories, they’re so far advanced. That generation has died off.
Graham-Cumming: There’s a very peculiar thing in computer science and the real application of computing which is that we both somehow sit on this great knowledge of the past of computing and at the same time we seem to willfully forget it and reinvent everything every few years. We go through these cycles where it’s like, let’s do centralized computing, now distributed computing. No, let’s have desktop PCs, now let’s have the cloud. We seem to have this collective amnesia and then on occasion people go, “Oh, Leslie Lamport wrote this thing in 1976 about this problem”. What other subject do we willfully forget the past and then have to go and doing archaeology to discover again?
Gage: As a sociological phenomenon it means that the older crowd in a company are depressing because they’ll say, “Oh we tried that and it didn’t work”. Over the years as Sun grew from 15 people or so and ended up being like 45,000 people before we were sold off to Oracle and then everybody dumped out because Oracle didn’t know too much about computing. So Ivan Sutherland, Whit Diffie. Ivan actually stayed on. He may actually still have an Oracle email. Almost all of the research groups, certainly the chip group went off to Intel, Fujitsu, Microsoft. It’s funny to think now that Microsoft’s run by a Sun person.
Graham-Cumming: Well that’s the same thing. Everyone’s forgotten that Microsoft was the evil empire not that long ago. And so now it’s not. Right now it’s cool again.
Gage: Well, all of the embedded stuff from Microsoft is still that legacy that Bill Gates who’s now doing wonderful things with the Gates Foundation. But the embedded insecurity of the global networks is due to, in large part, the insecurities, that horrible engineering of Microsoft embedded everywhere. You go anywhere in China to some old industrial facility and there is some old not updated junky PC running totally insecure software. And it’s controlling the grid. It’s discouraging. It’s like a lot of the SCADA systems.
Graham-Cumming: I’m completely terrified of SCADA systems.
Gage: The simplest exploits. I mean, it’s nothing even complicated. There are a series of emerging journalists today that are paying attention to cybersecurity and people have come out with books even very recently. Well, now because we’re in this China, US, Iran nightmare, a United States presidential directive taking the cybersecurity crowd and saying, oops, now you’re an offensive force. Which means we got some 20-year-old lieutenant somewhere who suddenly might just for fun turn off Tehran’s water supply or something. This is scary because the SCADA systems are embedded everywhere, and they’re, I don’t know, would you say totally insecure? Just the simple things, just simple exploits. One of the journalists described, I guess it was the Russians who took a bunch of small USB sticks and at a shopping center near a military base just gave them away. And people put them into their PCs inside SIPRNet, inside the secure U.S. Department of Defense network. Instantly the network was taken over just by inserting a USB device to something on the net. And there you are, John, protecting against this.
Graham-Cumming: Trying hard to protect against these things, yes absolutely. It’s very interesting because you mentioned before how rapidly Cloudflare had grown over the last few years. And of course Sun also really got going pretty rapidly, didn’t it?
Gage: Well, yes. The first year we were just some students from Berkeley, hardware from Stanford, Andy Bechtolsheim, software from Berkeley, Berkeley Unix BSD, Bill Joy. Combine the two, and 10 of us or so, and we were, I think the first year was 12 million booked, the second year was 50 or 60 million booked, and the third year was 150 or so million booked and then we hit 500 million and then we hit a billion. And now, it’s selling boxes, we were a manufacturing company so that’s different from software or services, but we also needed lots of people and so we instantly raided the immense benefit of variety of people in the San Francisco Bay Area, with Berkeley and Stanford. We had students in computer science, and mechanical engineering, and physics, and mathematics from every country in the world and we recruited from every country in the world. So a great part of Sun’s growth came, as you are, expanding internationally, and at one point I think we ran most of the telcos of the world, we ran China Mobile. 900 million subscribers on China Mobile, all Sun stuff in the back. Throughout Africa, every telco was running Sun and Cisco until Huawei knocked Cisco out. It was an amazing time.
Graham-Cumming: You ran the machine that ran Latek, that let me get my doctoral thesis done.
Gage: You know that’s how I got into it, actually. I was in econometrics and mathematics at Berkeley, and I walk down a hallway and outside a room was that funny smell from photographic paper from something, and there was perfectly typeset mathematics. Troff and nroff, all those old UNIX utilities for the Bell Technical Journal, and I open the door and I’ve got to get in there. There’s two hundred people sitting in front of these beehive-like little terminals all typing away on a UNIX system. And I want to get an account and I walk down the hall and there’s this skinny guy who types about 200 words a minute named Bill Joy. And I said, I need an account, I’ve got to type set integral signs, and he said, what’s your name. I tell him my name, John Gage, and he goes voop, and I’ve never seen anybody type as fast as him in my life. This is a new world, here.
Graham-Cumming: So he was rude then?
Gage: Yeah he was, he was. Well, it’s interesting since the arrival of a device at Berkeley to complement the arrival of an MIT professor who had implemented in LISP, mathematical, not typesetting of mathematics, but actual maxima. To get Professor fetman, maxima god from MIT, to come to Berkeley and live a UNIX environment, we had to put a LISP up outside on the PDP. So Bill took that machine which had virtual memory and implemented the environment for significant computational mathematics. And Steve Wolfram took that CalTech, and Princeton Institute for Advanced Studies, and now we have Mathematica. So in a way, all of Sun and the UNIX world derived from attempting to do executable mathematics.
Graham-Cumming: Which in some ways is what computers are doing. I think one of the things that people don’t really appreciate is the extent to which all numbers underneath.
Gage: Well that’s just this discrete versus continuous problem that Michael Jordan is attempting to address. To my current total puzzlement and complete ignorance, is what in the world is symplectic integration? And how do Lyapunov functions work? Oh, no clue.
Graham-Cumming: Are we going to do a second podcast on that? Are you going to come back and teach us?
Gage: Try it. We’re on, you’re on, you’re on. Absolutely. But you’ve got to run a company.
Graham-Cumming: Well I’ve got some things to do. Yeah. But you can go do that and come tell us about it.
Gage: All right, Great John. Well it was terrific to talk to you.
Graham-Cumming: So yes it was wonderful speaking to you as well. Thank you for helping me dig up memories of when I was first fooling around with Sun Systems and, you know, some of the early days and of course “The Network is the Computer,” I’m not sure I fully yet understand quite the metaphor or even if maybe I do somehow deeply in my soul get it, but we’re going to try and make it a reality, whatever it is.
Gage: Well, I count it as a complete success, because you count as one of our successes because you‘re doing what you’re doing, therefore the phrase, “The Network is the Computer,” resides in your brain and when you get up in the morning and decide what to do, a little bit nudges you toward making the network work.
Graham-Cumming: I think that’s probably true. And there’s the dog, the dog is saying you’ve been yakking for an hour and now we better stop. So listen, thank you so much for taking the time. It was wonderful talking to you. You have a good day. Thank you very much.
Interested in hearing more? Listen to my conversations with Ray Rothrock and Greg Papadopoulos of Sun Microsystems:
To learn more about Cloudflare Workers, check out the use cases below:
- Optimizely – Optimizely chose Workers when updating their experimentation platform to provide faster responses from the edge and support more experiments for their customers.
- Cordial – Cordial used a “stable of Workers” to do custom Black Friday load shedding as well as using it as a serverless platform for building scalable customer-facing services.
- AO.com – AO.com used Workers to avoid significant code changes to their underlying platform when migrating from a legacy provider to a modern cloud backend.
- Pwned Passwords – Troy Hunt’s popular “Have I Been Pwned” project benefits from cache hit ratios of 94% on its Pwned Passwords API due to Workers.
- Timely – Using Workers and Workers KV, Timely was able to safely migrate application endpoints using simple value updates to a distributed key-value store.
- Quintype – Quintype was an eager adopter of Workers to cache content they previously considered un-cacheable and improve the user experience of their publishing platform.