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Vint Cerf's Final Frontier: The Inteplanetary Internet

"Father of the Internet" now focused on building a communications network capable of supporting deep space exploration.

What does the man who invented the Internet do for an encore? He builds a space-based version of the worldwide computing and communications network. "We need a set of protocols that work on interplanetary distances, TCP/IP does not," said Cerf, at a press conference following his keynote Tuesday at the Interop Las Vegas tech expo at Mandalay Bay.

The need for an Internet-type network that can support long-range space missions—President Obama has said he wants the U.S. to launch a manned mission to Mars by 2035—was just one of the topics that Cerf, now chief Internet evangelist at Google, ad libbed upon during the Q&A with reporters.

Cerf, 67, isn’t easing into retirement. He's working with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. to develop the technologies that could gird an Internet suitable for space. He said such a system would most likely use radio signals at first, and then ultimately optical lasers that could deliver "hundreds of megabits per second" to conquer the vast distances involved.

In the early 1980s, Cerf worked at the Defense Department’s Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA), where he led the development of TCP/IP, the communications protocol that is the backbone of the modern Internet and, by extension, the World Wide Web.

Beyond his intergalactic efforts, Cerf is helping to shape Google's agenda here on Earth for the next decade. "We know what the trends are." Cerf said IT’s next challenges, and opportunities, revolve mainly around two key areas both separately and combined--mobility and instrumentation. "Cars, buildings, clothing will all be instrumented," said Cerf. "We will be instrumented."

Those instruments will send information about everything from an automobile’s break pads to a cardiac patient's heart rhythm, to cloud-based servers that will dispatch the data to professionals on the other end--be they auto mechanics or surgeons.

Cerf sees big potential for the cloud, a major area of focus at Google, whose Apps products are all Internet-based. But he cautioned that there needs to be interoperability between clouds from different vendors before cloud can become the dominant enterprise computing architecture. That won't happen unless users demand it, said Cerf. "We won't get true interoperability until customers say, 'I refuse to be locked in, I won't buy it if it isn't open.'"

Cerf said Google is working to ensure its cloud offerings avoid lock in. "We have a policy at Google called data liberation. If you put it in you can get it out again."

As for what he's focused on in his own role at Google, Cerf said he's keenly interested in analytics as a growth opportunity for the company. "It's almost impossible to appreciate what you can do with analytics," he said.

Does that mean Google will be going into competition with IBM, which has spent billions of dollars over the past several years beefing up its business analytics portfolio through acquisitions and homegrown efforts?

"It's more of a joint exploration," said Cerf, proving he's as much diplomat as he is an engineer and scientist.

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