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D-Lib Magazine
April 2003

Volume 9 Number 4

ISSN 1082-9873

Memorial Tribute to Barry Leiner

by Robert E. Kahn

Quite unexpectedly, Barry Leiner — a pioneer in the information technology field, a dedicated engineer and colleague, and for many, a good friend — died in his sleep during the early morning hours of April 2, 2003. Our thoughts and prayers go out to his wife Ellen and their two children, Jason and Diedre, along with the rest of their family.

Barry's death was attributed to ALS, a disease with which he had been diagnosed less than two years ago. Sadly, ALS, also known as Lou Gehrig's disease, is a disease with no known cure and one that is progressively debilitating over time. As it turned out, Barry had far less time remaining than anyone knew, and few of his recent plans for the remaining years of his life were to materialize.

A few months ago, I met with Barry and Ellen at their house in the Bay Area, and although he was clearly aware that time was not on his side, he exhibited both clarity of mind and purpose as we discussed the possibilities for the coming months and years. He appeared to be handling his situation remarkably well; he was still reasonably mobile, intellectually curious and involved via the Internet as well as personally with many timely issues. He was looking forward to years of continuing involvement with his work at the Research Institute for Advanced Computer Science (RIACS) and with the rest of the research community.

Barry and I worked together on two different occasions. The first time was when he was a program manager at DARPA in the 1980 - 1985 time frame while I was the office director. I had learned of his work on radio-based systems while he was an engineer at Probe Systems in the late 1970s. After receiving a Ph.D. from Stanford University in Electrical Engineering and engaging in a short stint at university teaching, he joined Probe in the late 1970s, where he became involved in the design and development of an IFF system. This was a radio-based system to determine whether a detected signal was from a friendly source or not. At DARPA, he assumed responsibility for several existing efforts, such as the packet radio program, and quickly managed to demonstrate his technical and managerial skills. After leaving DARPA in the mid 1980s, he joined RIACS, a NASA-supported research institute, where he became a Deputy Director. From RIACS, he went to Advanced Decision Systems, a small information technology firm in the Bay Area. He subsequently signed up for a second tour at DARPA in the mid 1990s, where he became an Assistant Director in the Information Technology Office with a focus on information management, distributed computing and software systems that could best be described as "middleware".

The second occasion we worked together was at CNRI in 1998-1999, where he was instrumental in helping to organize efforts in information management on a national scale. In 1999, RIACs offered Barry the Director's job, a position for which he was eminently well qualified, and he accepted.

Let me turn my attention to a few of Barry's most important contributions. While he became well known in the networking community during the 1980s, a decade later he also became well known in the information management community. His background in communications made him an ideal candidate to take responsibility for the Internet project at DARPA. I had started the project in the early 1970s and Vint Cerf ran it from 1976-1982. By 1983, the technology had matured to the point that DARPA transitioned the ARPANET to the TCP/IP protocols and the operational Internet was put in place. The main issues here were as much organizational and social as they were technical and bureaucratic and required skill in all four areas. Barry Leiner had all four requisite skills to do the job.

In the late 1970s, DARPA had formed a small group of approximately a dozen technical experts called the Internet Configuration Control Board (ICCB) to help with the evolution of the Internet. By 1983, the ICCB meetings had hundreds of onlookers sitting in who were intrigued with the emerging Internet. This had become unwieldy, if not unworkable going forward. Under Barry's leadership, and working with the chair of the ICCB, MIT's Dave Clark, they transformed the ICCB into the Internet Activities Board (IAB), which led the Internet standards efforts in a hands-on fashion for almost ten years as the Internet matured. A number of Task Forces were created under the IAB including one called "Internet Engineering", which ultimately gained responsibility for managing the other task forces; these were later renamed "working groups" except for those that were clearly associated with research, which were assembled into "research groups" of the Internet Research Task Force. By agreement with the IAB in the early 1990s, the hands-on responsibility for the Internet standards was passed from the IAB to the IETF leadership. At the time of this writing, circa 2003, the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) still has hands-on responsibility for this aspect of the Internet. The IAB continues to play an important role in overseeing certain aspects of the work of the IETF and in developing independent views on critical architectural matters concerning the Internet. For many years, Barry had the ultimate responsibility for the development of this part of the Internet organizational structure, which he oversaw during the mid 1980s while at DARPA. Several years later, Barry Leiner became a member of the IAB where he served for many years.

The organizational structure of the Internet standards process as we know it today is largely due to the vision and insight of Barry Leiner. His ability to understand how to create social and organizational structures that by their design could motivate individuals to collaborate was at the core of this important contribution. I never knew anyone who was more effective at this than Barry. In the process of developing these structures, he worked closely with Steve Wolff of the National Science Foundation whose political and technical decisions about the structuring of the Internet itself were critically important to the future of the Internet as well. When Barry left DARPA, Steve assumed the responsibility for the standards process as well and molded it over the following decade along the basic lines that Barry had established. Barry clearly understood the importance of his contribution here, as did a small number of us who were deeply involved in the evolution of the Internet. However, this was largely done without much visibility into how the process evolved and, thus, without the kind of widespread recognition that often goes with major technical accomplishments. Had he lived longer, I'm sure this aspect of his contribution would have come to be much more widely recognized. Perhaps this tribute can help to start the process.

Barry Leiner was also a dedicated public servant, with a keen eye for addressing issues of national concern. Having been instrumental in helping to create the IETF, by the mid 1990s he had come to recognize the inherent limitation of trying to have the IETF deal with every issue concerning the Internet. Perhaps this was brought to mind by the formation of the World Wide Web consortium at MIT, for which he provided initial funding to help it get established, or the growing set of interests in Digital Libraries that had its own long tradition in the non-digital world. But also, he recognized the needs for payment mechanisms on the Internet and thus provided support for the Electronic Payments Forum, which eventually involved many dozens of organizations and hundreds of individuals involved with financial matters and payment systems that, for the most part, had no previous connection with the IETF. These concerns remain to this day.

The Digital Library interest is probably of most visibility to the readers of D-Lib Magazine, the first on-line journal dedicated to matters concerning Digital Libraries and information management more generally. Barry had intended to create a vibrant D-Lib Forum, by analogy with the IETF, to address this general area with the magazine as its means of public expression. The magazine has been made available on the Internet since mid 1995 and is a lasting tribute to Barry's imagination in this area. Although Barry himself was never an editor or publisher of the magazine, he was its spiritual godfather in many ways. He provided funding for the magazine and worked closely with CNRI and particularly Bill Arms and Amy Friedlander in its original conception, and in helping to promote it widely within the U.S. Government's Digital Library Initiative and elsewhere. He even contributed a number of inputs to the magazine over the years [1-3].

One of his most referenced works was an article he assembled and edited entitled "A Brief History of the Internet" [4] with inputs from many of the leading contributors to the Internet over many decades. By virtue of his technical and professional standing in the community, and his skill in forging collaborative structures, he was able to get the relevant inputs merged into a single document with which all the contributors could agree. It was, by definition, brief and it did not (indeed could not) touch on all the relevant aspects of the Internet. Yet it managed to put into perspective the most important of the contributions of many individuals over time. And, although he played a major role himself, as was his wont he understated the importance of his own contribution.

This was the essence of Barry Leiner as I knew him. He strove for accomplishment, for fairness and objectivity, for collaboration and organization, for supporting the community whose talents he greatly appreciated and for being a friend and colleague to all who knew him. Barry was a person you could trust. You could talk to him, ask his help or his advice and he would gladly give it if he could. He was truly a giving person. Anyone who ever knew him came away the better for the experience.

I will miss him greatly and I know his friends and colleagues will feel the same.

[1] Leiner, Barry M., "Metrics and the Digital Library," (Guest Editorial) D-Lib Magazine, July/August 1998. Available at doi:10.1045/july98-editorial.

[2] Leiner, Barry M., "The NCSTRL Approach to Open Architecture for the Confederated Digital Library," D-Lib Magazine, December 1998. Available at doi.10.1045/december98-leiner.

[3] Leiner, Barry M., "New D-Lib Working Group on Digital Library Metrics Formed," D-Lib Magazine, December 1997. Available at doi:10.1045/december97-clips.

[4] Leiner, Barry M. et al., "A Brief History of the Internet," version 3.31, (last revised 4 Aug 2000). Available at hdl:4263537/5002


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DOI: 10.1045/april2003-editorial