Internet Architecture and the Rewards of Failure


Recently, Professor Scott Shenker gave a special lecture to Berkeley Connect students on internet architecture. The event was fascinating and surprising in more ways than one.

Shenker opened by speaking humbly about his academic beginnings. He got his PhD in theoretical physics, and admitted to having no training in computer science. “I can’t program my way out of a paper bag,” he laughed. Additionally, he characterized his competitive advantages as “ignorance and luck.”

Shenker set out to answer three questions during the course of his lecture: “What is internet architecture?”, “Why did it change computer science?”, and “Why will it change your life?”

Architecture, said Shenker, is “the allocation of functionality.” Internet architecture relates to the decisions about which tasks to do and where to do them. Engineering, on the other hand, is about how tasks get done.

Shenker described the internet as an infrastructure, and emphasized its ability to connect many different networks, scale to the entire world, and recover from failure. He spoke about the history of networks, moving from the telephone network to the first computer network. He pointed out the innovative design principles of the internet: functionality that is implemented by endpoints, resource management through instantaneous sharing, reliability through redundancy, and recovery handled by endpoints.

One of the primary things the internet does well is handle failure. The internet was created to treat failures as normal operation, and always try to adapt to the current conditions. Shenker sees this as a life lesson.

“You live in a competitive world,” he told the assembled students. “It’s assumed that success is the metrics by which you define yourself.” Shenker acknowledged that life was not so competitive when he was graduating from college. “I have failed at cosmic proportions,” he added. The internet makes no distinction between normal operations and failures, and Shenker advised living life the same way. It’s all about adapting to the conditions, no matter what they may be. Instead of dwelling on failures with regret, Shenker urged students to “devote yourself to something hard and important.”  

Towards the end of his lecture, a huge crowd of Shenker’s friends, family, colleagues, and former students swarmed the room to surprise him for his birthday. Incredibly astonished and pleased to see people from across the country (some of whom he hadn’t seen in years), Shenker struggled to contain his emotions as he continued with his talk. But continue he did, and while Berkeley Connect students were caught off-guard as well, they not only learned about internet architecture from one of the nation’s premier computer scientists, but saw firsthand the rewards of a life devoted to “hard and important” endeavors.

Posted by Madeline Wells, Berkeley Connect Communications Assistant