“When I was your age, anyone my age didn’t know squat, and we were right,” said ECE alumnus John Day (BSEE ’70, MS ’76) to audiences of ECE and Computer Science students during an invited visit to campus this fall.
Breaking into a laugh, he added: “So why am I the one up here speaking?”
Day was only half joking. On one hand, his radical ideas about computer networks were born in the midst of the U of I campus counterculture and hardened through persistent skepticism of experts in the field. On the other hand, Day’s broad experience and seasoned ideas deserve a hearing from anyone — young or old — interested in building networks that better serve human needs.
And it happens that a turning point in Day’s life and career occurred when, as a junior at Illinois, he came under the spell of an older campus eminence, Professor Heinz von Foerster (1911–2002), who directed an internationally renowned cybernetics laboratory at Illinois. In 1967, the university was presenting a series of public lectures as part of its centennial celebration, and the charismatic von Foerster was one of the featured speakers.
“It was like, I’ve got to work with this guy,” said Day, who at the time was still fresh from his small hometown of Kinmundy, Illinois, and hungry for intellectual adventure. “I decided right then to enroll in anything he offered. I think I learned more from his seminars than probably anything else. And what I learned was how to think, how to tear a problem apart and see what was really going on.”
The analytical knack that Day developed at Illinois led him, over the course of decades, to a ground-breaking theory of networking, which he unveiled in his 2008 book, Patterns of Network Architecture (Prentice Hall), and which he continues to investigate in collaboration with a growing group of international researchers.
Through von Foerster’s circles, Day was introduced to people working on the ILLIAC IV supercomputer. As a member of the ILLIAC IV software group, Day gained expertise in both operating systems and — when the machine was slated as node 12 on the ARPANET — network design and protocols.
“We were the first people to live on the ARPANET. We were running jobs on one machine, producing graphs on another machine, and printing stuff back in Champaign. We did a distributed database — a land use management system — that was accessed through an LSI-11 with a plasma screen and touch panel that used databases on both coasts that were completely invisible to the user. We didn’t know it at the time, but we were probably the finest software group in the country. The things we pulled off, nobody else came close.”
Day continued working on ARPANET topics through his master’s program (under von Foerster’s direction) and beyond: From 1976 until 1978 he worked with the Illinois-based group, via ARPANET, while living in Houston, making him one of the earliest telecommuters.
After a brief stint back in Champaign-Urbana, Day moved to the Boston area (he now resides with wife Meg, a flight attendant, in Foxborough, Massachusetts). He took a series of jobs with technology companies. Among his duties was to serve as a delegate to various standards initiatives including the Open Systems Interconnection (OSI), a rival to the TCP/IP standard undergirding the Internet. Day was head of the U.S. delegation for architecture and served as rapporteur for the development of the seven-layer OSI architecture that is still taught in introductory networking classes.
That experience opened Day’s eyes to the political battles taking place behind the scenes of the technologies that dominate our daily lives. He believes the long-term health of the Internet is endangered by the outcomes of such battles, which happened decades ago surrounding such fundamental issues as naming/addressing and congestion control.
“We’ve been surviving on Moore’s law, fiber optics, and Band-Aids ever since," he said. "The end probably won’t be a catastrophic collapse. It will be more of a whimper than a bang as the Internet becomes gradually more inefficient and untrustworthy.”
Day’s solution: The Recursive InterNetwork Architecture (RINA), a model of networking that returns to fundamentals. Since introducing RINA in his book, Day has cultivated a network of like-minded researchers — mostly in Europe, but also at Boston University where he teaches — to investigate and refine the model, and to work toward its implementation.
“We are constantly amazed by what falls out of the model," he said. "RINA achieves solutions to problems like router table size, multihoming, mobility, security, congestion control, and more. The real shocker was when we realized a global address space was not necessary.”
Current practice on the Internet is to solve problems by adding kludges.
“We have learned to ask first, What does the model tell us? And often we are surprised to find that the solutions are already there, inherent in the model," he said. "They just fall out for free.”
Day acknowledged that the Internet, and its foundation in TCP/IP, is here to stay for the short term. But he encourages engineers to think ahead and start building “over, under, and around the existing Internet” with networks based on better ideas.
Like his mentor Heinz von Foerster, Day is a raconteur and a polymath, comfortable discussing subjects like art, music, history, and philosophy in addition to engineering and science. One of his avocations is the history of Chinese science, with its different approach from that of the West.
Among the benefits of such study, according to Day: “Collecting different models is the secret to finding new insights.”
In addition, Day has published scholarly articles about Matteo Ricci (1552–1610), the Italian Jesuit priest, missionary to China, and cartographer. He authored a chapter and provided cover art for a recent large-format book about Ricci’s cartography published in Italy. And for the past three years, Day has served as president of the Boston Map Society, an organization founded by former University of Illinois map librarian David Cobb.
“I’m working on an essay that draws parallels between the Internet and 17th-century China, but I don’t know where to publish it,” he said. “The historians won’t understand the networking part, and the networking guys won’t understand the Chinese history part.”
Day has three children (two of whom are Illinois alumni) and six grandchildren. Day’s son Tim earned his master’s in ECE in 2004, working under the direction of Professor Kyekyoon Kim on gallium nitride–based electronic devices.
“We bookend ECE," said the proud father.