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Episode 9 Notes - Soviet Networking

Jul 31, 2019

ARPANET was the precursor to the modern internet, or at least the network infrastructure we are familiar with today. The design phase of the project started in the early 1960s, with the first infrastructure being placed in '69. Eventually the project would grow into the internet we know today, but there were earlier attempts at large-scale networks. Specifically, the Soviet Union had a series of attempts at creating nation wide networks going as far back as 1959.

Some of the first of these networks were military defense and monitoring grids built in the US and the USSR just after WWII. These networks are interesting and deserve their own separate discussion, but they weren't general purpose. Part of what makes the modern internet so important is that it can transfer general data, that and the fact that anyone can get access to the entire network.

Most Soviet network plans hinged on a crisis occurring just as computers started to hit the Russian scene. The nation was based on a planned economy, in which the government controlled all production and distribution. This is counter to the supply and demand driven market economies of capitalist nations. The goal of a planned economy is to, ideally, create a perfectly efficient economy. Or at least an economy that the government can easily shape. As the name suggests, to do this takes a lot of economic planning. And in the 50s it was becoming clear that human power alone could not create a perfect plan.

This was around the same time the first computers were being constructed in the Soviet Union. The number-crunching potential of computers offered a new avenue of investigation to put the economy back on track. But it turns out that modeling an entire economy, even backed by computer power, is difficult. To create a perfect model of the whole economy you need perfect information on everything that goes on inside the country. Then to process that information you need a lot of computing power.

One solution to this problem was to create a massive country-wide network. Pretty soon after the introduction of computers in Russia plans for a network started to be made. Starting in 1959 with Kitov's EASU proposal, and continuing on into the early 70s, some of the best minds in the Soviet Union would offer their own designs on a networked nation.

The most fruitful of these attempts was Glushkov's OGAS. This was planned to be a decentralized network that would span the entire Soviet Union and be used primarily to collect data on and plan for the economy. The network was laid out in a different way to our current internet. Instead of being distributed as ARPANET would later be designed, OGAS was a 3-tier decentralized system. A central node in Moscow would be connected to a series of regional centers. A final lower tier of access points would connect to the nearby regional nodes.

A key part of the proposal was to automate away the problems the Soviet government faced, by using a network of computers to generate both economic plans and automatically make government decisions. But outside of that, OGAS was also groundbreaking for being a civilian-accessible network. Access points would be spread through the country allowing Soviet citizens to get online decades before the advent of the internet.

Ultimately, OGAS and all other attempts failed to take hold. This was due to a lot of factors, including factionalism and resistance inside the Soviet government. It's interesting to think what the modern web would look like if any of these projects had succeeded. 

For an idea of what OGAS may have looked like if fully completed, checkout this map made by u/dom_bul from the ImaginaryMaps subreddit. Note how a series of nodes spread around the nation all connect back to a main computing center in Moscow, as opposed to a more spider-web like network we would see today.

To learn more about OGAS and other Soviet networking attempts, check out my episode on the matter. If you still want to dig deeper, I'd highly recommend "How Not to Network a Nation" by Benjamin Peters.

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