November 2, 1988, lives in infamy in Internet history. At 5 PM that Tuesday, a "worm," a computer program that propagated copies of itself on certain types of computer operating systems, was released on the Internet, ultimately reaching 4000 of them. Within 36 hours, the worm had, for all intents and purposes, been stopped by a self-organizing, completely volunteer network of computer people across the U.S. It's a great networking story.

Only Connect

Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.
from Howard's End by E.M. Forster

Links are the signature characteristic of networks. Connections always have been important to organizations, but comparatively speaking, until now, people have had limited links. In the past, the physical connections among people have been relatively scarce and costly. Both to maintain control and in the interests of efficiency, hierarchy and bureaucracy minimize connections.

Links are not new in networks but their variety and intensity are new, as is their use as a dominant design principle. New media that instantly circumnavigate our small planet bring with them geographically distributed organizations, virtual teams-and overloaded people.

There is something entirely new wrapped around the planet-a way for one person to communicate with many at a very low cost, regardless of where they are in time or space. Spontaneously and with little deliberate planning, a global conversation and information freeway has erupted in less than a decade that makes next-door neighbors of people in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, Bangalore, India, and Johannesburg, South Africa. No single organization owns the Internet, the earth's interconnected computer network of networks. No authoritative hierarchy governs it. And it is growing faster than ever predicted.

The Internet is an electronic technology that makes it possible for people to "only connect." The Age of the Network is all about the ability to develop relationships that cross space and time. Geography needs no longer be a barrier to people's capacity to work together and form communities.

The technology network supports the people network. Those who regard the technology alone as the network miss the point. Networking means people connecting with people, which they do whether they're sitting around a conference table, pressing their ears to the phone, staring at a computer, or standing by the fax machine.

The really fascinating technology story occurs when people engage at their deepest levels, solving problems, describing experiences, and allowing their "creative juices to really flow."

VirusNet Self-Organizes

On November 2, 1988, a graduate student at Cornell University released the first big virus on to the Internet. Launched at 5:01:59 PM on Tuesday, the "Internet Worm" invaded a certain type of operating system on computers attached to the Internet-from Lincoln Labs and the National Supercomputer Center to Boston University and the University of California at San Diego. It shut down many big research sites and universities within the first hour.

Instantly, a spontaneous, geographically distributed, all-volunteer army of specialists, which we call "VirusNet," erupted to work round the clock to stop the worm, which they did in barely a day's time. Not before, however, headline news had alarmed the public that World War III might be upon us.

VirusNet is a classic study in the impromptu development of a laser focused, mach speed, emergency rescue network that achieved its objective-just like that. It demonstrates all five teamnet principles:

  • VirusNet's clear purpose was to kill the worm.
  • Everyone involved-perhaps a dozen at the core with scores and ultimately hundreds more minor players-was an independent member. If any single person left, VirusNet still survived.
  • They communicated like crazy. They were richly linked with intense face-to-face encounters. Countless phone calls skidded down lines of pre-existing trust. And the physical Internet played its part: On the 95 percent of it not affected by the worm, people sent messages, swapped files, called up programs, and accessed databases.
  • There were no bosses. Multiple leaders brought their expertise to bear at critical moments. No single person solved the problem; everyone together did.
  • By the time it was over, VirusNet engaged all the levels: the hierarchy and the "lower"-archy. While the computer labs hacked out the solutions, the press was in the office of MIT's Vice President of Information Services. Within a week, the previously anonymous computer labsters who cracked the code found themselves in a debriefing with officials from the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the Defense Communications Agency, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the Department of Energy, the Ballistics Research Laboratory, the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, the Central Intelligence Agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation, and the National Computer Security Center.

While destructive viruses have been loose in the computer world for at least a decade, this was the first networking worm. It posed as an imposter to linked computer systems, and once inside, went on to "propagate copies of itself." Strange as it may seem, it was a relatively "nice" worm. It only attacked computers running a specific operating system called Unix, the Bell Labs invention that blew open the potential for open systems and large-scale electronic networking.

Although the worm did not harm data or reveal any passwords, it did cause quite a ruckus. First, it had no business invading other machines to begin with. Once it arrived, it generated garbage throughout the whole system. It had to be stopped.

Was it an accident that Robert T. Morris, Jr., the Cornell student who perpetrated the worm and eventually received one year's probation, along with 400 hours of community service and a $10,000 fine for his crime, chose the eve of the annual face-to-face meeting of Unix experts in Berkeley, California, to release it? This rare convergence brought together many of the world's best Unix minds. Related or not, the network as a whole had access to how to stop the worm in the snap-of-a-finger time of 36 hours.

The worm wasn't so much discovered by anyone as it was detected by many people at the same time. They figured out that it was a "worm" by putting their heads together. Within an hour of its launch, someone saw something strange on an MIT computer, but couldn't figure out what it was. The first message calling it a virus came from someone at NASA Ames Research Center nine hours after its release, saying the worm had attacked machines at University of California at Berkeley, University of California at San Diego, Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, Stanford, and Ames. An hour later, someone at Harvard suggested that the worm was an Internet problem. Within the next hour, more heads went up at separate sites at MIT, Berkeley, Brown, and SRI International.

Immediately, different groups of people in different labs went to work, forsaking sleep, food, and showers. Each lab went after the part of the problem that it knew best how to solve.

  • One discovered a bug in the worm program that could be used against it.
  • Another noticed that the worm crawled in through a wide open door, a particularly vulnerable bit of computer code, and published a way to close it by midnight of the day after the worm's launch.
  • Others replicated the worm on a "trenched" (isolated) machine, set off from the Internet so that it only could worm across its own experiment.
  • Even Morris himself reportedly tried to kill the worm. According to one account, he regretted his act almost immediately and, within a few hours of the release, asked a friend to post his solution to a computer bulletin board. However, no one could access it because the computer systems that needed to see Morris's message were the very ones that were down.


The weary labsters communicated continuously and extensively among themselves about their progress-both on the phone and through other network gateways not shut down by the worm. Occasionally, they went to meals. In all, only eight days passed until every affected computer was back up and running, with no more than 4000 machines infected in total, about five percent of the 80,000 then connected to the Internet (in mid-1994, 2,200,000 machines are connected).

Press and Perceptions

Released on Tuesday, the worm problem had been solved by the time MIT hosted the first national press conference on Friday. The reporters were disappointed.

They had hoped for a much bigger story, perhaps one in which all the world's computers had been wiped out in a single moment, "that we were ... moments away from World War III, or that there were ... large numbers of companies and banks hooked up to `MIT's network,' who were going to be really upset when Monday morning rolled around," wrote Jon Rochlis and Mark Eichin in their first-hand account of cracking the worm code. "My greatest fear was that of seeing a National Inquirer headline: `Computer Virus Escapes to Humans, 96 Killed,'" one labster said.

The media also was disappointed with the virus's lack of visuals, having to settle for people "looking at workstations talking `computer talk.'" Much of the news is invisible to the camera's eye in the Age of the Network.

In fingering Morris as the chief suspect on the morning of the press conference, The New York Times reported the great irony of this story: "The enemy is us," in Rochlis and Eichin's words. It wasn't a terrorist operating out of some distant, strange land, or a corporate blackmailer, or a disgruntled worker who perpetrated the crime. It was an academic graduate student in computer science at a respected American institution whose father Robert T. Morris, Sr., was the chief scientist at the National Computer Security Center.

While the worm did very little real damage, it revealed the vulnerability of the Internet at the same time as it unveiled its strengths. Chief among these is the design of the Internet, founded on the principle of "decentralizing defenses." Don't protect the network; protect the individual nodes on the network.

Which tightly couples to the final networking lesson brought to us by the worm:

In a complex, unpredictable world, diversity is the great armor of the whole fabric.

Since the virus only attacked one type of computer operating system, few sites were put out of business completely. By having many different types of computer systems, the labs were safer than if they were all the same.

Diversity is safer, as well as smarter