Eric M. Aupperle (1935 – 2015): An internet pioneer leaves a remarkable legacy

Mr. Aupperle was a true Michigan man, devoting his career to the University and to the state of Michigan in his role as director and later president of Merit Network.

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As leader of Merit Network, Eric Aupperle led Michigan's contributions to NSFNET and connected computing - what we now call simply - the Internet.

Eric Max Aupperle (BSE EE and Math ’57; MSE NERS ’58; Instm.E. ’64), renowned president of Merit Network and Research Scientist Emeritus, passed away Thursday, April 30, 2015, at the age of 80.

It is not often that an individual’s memorial tribute reflects a life lived in the heart of a major technological revolution. As director and president of a computer research network that played a contributing role in the development of the Internet, Eric Aupperle lived such a life.

Mr. Aupperle was a true Michigan man, devoting his career to the University of Michigan and to the State of Michigan in his role as director and later president of Merit Network. Throughout his career at Merit, Eric was an employee of the University of Michigan, serving for a time as Associate Director for Communications (1981-1989) and Interim Director of Information Technology Division Network Systems (1990-1992).

After receiving his bachelor’s degrees in electrical engineering and mathematics in 1957, Mr. Aupperle was hired as a researcher of electronic devices at the U-M Cooley Electronics Laboratory. He was a lecturer in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering from 1963-2002, teaching digital circuits and other circuits and computer-related courses. By the mid 1960’s, Eric was programming assembly language into the earliest version of mini-computers in the university’s Computer Electronics Lab.[1]

In the fall of 1969, Eric was hired as the first employee of Merit Network by the director, Prof. Bertram Herzog. His job was to implement a computer network that linked the University of Michigan, Michigan State University, and Wayne State University. Recalling the early years in a later interview, Eric said they had to build the technology, called communications computers (essentially routers by today’s terminology). Only ARPA was doing something similar at that time. [2]

“It was clear that we needed someone who had electrical engineering, circuit design capabilities,” Herzog says today of his choice of Aupperle. “There was a lot of innovative stuff to be done.” [3]

In 1973, the network was formally dedicated, and for the first time a researcher at Michigan, for example, was able to run a program at Michigan State or Wayne State. A year later Eric was appointed director of Merit, and he would serve as Merit’s first president from 1988 to 2001.

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In 1976, Merit interconnected with Telenet, a spin-off of ARPANET, which ultimately connected Merit users with the world. In 1983, Hans-Werner Braun was brought in from Germany to interconnect Merit’s network with ARPANET itself. Once completed – Merit became the first network to support both a connection-based protocol and the connectionless TCP/IP suite. [4]

The next major milestone in Eric’s career occurred after the National Science Foundation (NSF) established NSFNET in 1985 with the goal of networking five new recently-funded supercomputing centers. Within just a year, network traffic far exceeded capacity, and NSF put out a bid to upgrade NSFNET to meet the demand.

Merit Network, which by this time had grown to include eight universities, was selected as lead organization of this upgraded NSFNET, a consortium that included IBM, MCI, and the State of Michigan. Eric would later write, “Almost overnight Merit’s role of providing networking services to our member universities and a handful of other Michigan-based organizations was extended to include an extremely significant, highly visible national networking function.” [5]

As President of Merit, Eric was called on many times to talk about NSFNET and the rise of networked computing.  In a 1985 article printed in IEEE Spectrum, he said, “The communications and computer industries evolved independently, but they have blended inexorably, both technically and, more recently, organizationally.”

By 1991, discussions of who owned the Internet, which itself was an object of some confusion, was a hot topic of conversation. In the article, Just Who Owns the Internet?,  Eric was quoted as saying, “When one talks of the Internet, you have to envision a large number of networks, some of which are major backbones like the NSF Net. Others are statewide or regional networks, others are networks within colleges or research educations or labs. What counts as ownership? … The desired outcome is access as open as it is today, in terms of the educational and research community, and also for commercial users.” [6]

Dan Atkins III, Professor of Information and Electrical Engineering and Computer Science, former Dean of the College of Engineering and the School of Information, and inaugural Director of the Office of Cyberinfrastructure at NSF, confirmed the importance of Eric’s leadership and Merit’s role in shaping the Internet:

“Eric Aupperle was a pioneer contributor to the rapid emergence of the Internet as we now know it. Pre-internet he headed the development of MERIT, one of the very first regional computer networks. MERIT created the capacity for the University of Michigan to win the operational leadership of the NSFNet, the project that led to rapid adoption of the TCP/IP standards of the original ARPA Net to all of higher education. This rapid growth launched TCP/IP as the open defacto standard for all of the Internet and thus dampened the attempts by commercial parties to establish proprietary networks. The internet may well be very different today were it not for the talented leadership of Eric Aupperle and colleagues at the University of Michigan.”

In the early 1990’s, Merit successfully worked to provide network access to K-12 schools throughout Michigan. Merit also helped develop the University of Michigan’s GoMLink, the first virtual library on the Internet. In 1994, Merit became involved with the North American Network Operators’ Group (NANOG), the professional association for Internet engineering and architecture. Merit coordinated and managed the activities of NANOG until 2010.

NSFNET funding ended in 1995. Eric said the $50M spent by the government resulted in “a great return on investment.”

Doug Van Houweling, Professor of Information, took over as president of Merit when Eric stepped down. Prof. Van Houweling served a Chairman of the Board at Merit during NSFnet, was Chief Executive Officer of Internet2 between 1997-2010, and is a member of the Internet Hall of Fame. He stated:

“Eric Aupperle led Michigan’s higher education network, Merit, through three decades of innovation. He had a unique talent for attracting gifted colleagues and welding their sometimes disparate visions into action that kept Merit at the forefront of network technology and applications. His crowning achievement was leadership of the NSFNET project which demonstrated that Internet technology could serve millions of users and led to today’s Internet. Eric’s leadership changed the world.”

Eric remained committed to Merit’s purpose as being “Michigan’s premiere network service provider for our educational and research communities.”  Merit is still an active non-profit organization, providing high-performance networking and services to the research and education communities in Michigan as well as across the U.S.

In recognition of his leadership at Merit and resulting contributions to the history of networked computing, especially for the research and educational community, Mr. Aupperle was awarded the highest alumni honor by the College of Engineering, the Alumni Medal, in 2003. He received the IEEE Third Millenium Medal in 2000. Eric also served as a board member of the EECS Alumni Society from 2004-07.

“The department is honored to have counted Mr. Eric Aupperle as a friend and colleague,” said Khalil Najafi, Schlumberger Professor of Engineering and Chair of Electrical and Computer Engineering. “We salute his extraordinary accomplishments as leader of Merit Network, and offer our sincere condolences to his entire family.”

[1] History of the Merit Network, by Kate Kellogg. Interview with Eric Aupperle. Ann Arbor Business Magazine. February, 2006.

[2] 40 years and going strong: Internet pioneer Merit celebrates and looks aheadFormer leader of Michigan research network reflects on organization’s accomplishments. Interview with Eric Aupperle.Networkworld, Nov 10, 2006.

[3] A Chronicle of Merit’s Early History, written in 1989 by John Mulcahy, a Merit staff member who had been hired on a temporary basis to complete a variety of technical writing projects.

[4] History of Merit, see 1980-1989, by Merit Network, Inc.

[5] Merit – Who, What, and Why, by Eric. M. Aupperle, President, Merit Network, Inc. This four-part article covers the years 1964-1998.

[6] Just Who Owns the Internet, by Sharon Fisher, InfoWorld, February 4, 1991.


Memorial Celebration

There will be a Memorial Celebration on Saturday, May 9, at Nie Family Funeral Home, 2400 Carpenter Rd, Ann Arbor.

In lieu of flowers, the family suggests donations be made in memory of Eric Aupperle to the University of Michigan Electrical and Computer Engineering Fund (fund number 313472, U of M EECS Dept, 1301 Beal Avenue, Ann Arbor, MI 48109-2122), which supports student research and activities, guest lecturers, state-of-the-art equipment purchases, and many other activities that benefit students.

The family would like to thank each donor, which will be possible by using this link to send a donation, or referencing Eric Aupperle on your check or when you call.

Click here to give by check or by phone, and for additional information

Internet Before and After NSFNET (1988-1995)

“During the seven-and one-half-year NSFNET project era, backbone network traffic increased nearly a thousandfold, reaching almost 100 billion packets per month. The number of Internet networks announced on the backbone grew from a handful in 1988 to 50,766 in April 1995, of which 22,296 were non-U.S. networks. The number of countries comprising the Internet grew from 3 to 93. The extraordinary success of the NSFNET project was the dominant factor in converting the ARPANET and early NSFNET research and academically focused Internet into today’s worldwide commodity Internet phenomenon. Merit and our partners are proud and pleased to have been a key part of this exciting transition.” Eric Aupperle [5]