Created almost 25 years ago by Columbia's academic computing center to help manage the high demand on the University's mainframes, a software program known as Kermit has leapt all the way to the International Space Station where it is being used in a scientific experiment.
Designed to allow two different computer systems to interact, Kermit was used to solve a compatibility problem on the space station. Using two versions of program, one of which was modified specifically for NASA, an experimental device referred to as CLSM-2 can now share information with another computer on board the space station that transmits data back to earth.
"Kermit and Kermit 95 have been invaluable tools to improve our computing efficiency, both in development and in the final operational system," wrote Dave Hall, senior engineer, ZIN Technologies on Kermit's Columbia Web site.
The significance of Kermit is not entirely its invention or its inclusion in the state-of-the-art experiment, but its ability to evolve and to retain its viability in the always-expanding computer industry.
And as one of its creators admits, it was never imagined that Kermit would develop the way it did. "Nobody expected the protocol and software to become a worldwide de facto standard, but even if we had, there are not many things we would have done differently, except in choosing a name," said Frank da Cruz, a manager who has worked on the project since its inception. He recalled amusingly how a picture of the friendly green amphibian swayed his judgment when it came time to name the project.
According to da Cruz, Kermit was borne out of a project to alleviate the strain on the University's academic mainframe computers in the late 1970's, which could only provide 35KB of storage per student. Columbia employees developed a protocol to transfer information from the mainframes to floppy disks through microcomputers that were installed around the university. The first Kermit file transfer occurred in April 1981.
The introduction and the ensuing popularity of IBM's personal computer (PC) prompted the next stage in Kermit's evolution. The university adapted the Kermit protocol to address the PC's incompatibility with Columbia's other computers and released it in January 1983. The PC version proved widely popular and was the subject of books published in English, French, German and Japanese.
At the same time, Kermit programs were developed for minicomputers being used in several Columbia departments. Its popularity continued to grow through the mid-1980s, and by 1986, Kermit was well established at Columbia and a fixture at many other universities, government agencies and companies worldwide.
Through the years, hundreds of Kermit programs have been written at Columbia and elsewhere and distributed through the project. In the early 1990s Kermit software was engineered to handle Russian, Hebrew, Japanese, Polish and many other languages via both their traditional character sets and Unicode, the new Universal Character Set.
"At conferences in Europe, the Soviet Union, and Japan, we quickly came to appreciate the enormous demand for computer communication in diverse languages and writing systems, and worked to make it a reality," said da Cruz.
Kermit 95, which was created for Windows 95 and its successors, was licensed to universities such as Oxford, Harvard, Dartmouth, Princeton and the entire SUNY college system; and was bulk licensed to over 800 companies and government agencies worldwide.
Kermit was initially shared with other organizations at no cost, despite the fact that it used a great amount of resources to coordinate the writing of new programs to archive results and to distribute the software. But in 1986, the Kermit Project was formed and distribution fees were established. Today, the project is entirely self-sufficient.
Despite the requirement to fund itself through the commercial licensing of its products, the Kermit Project has remained dedicated to making sure the program is available for humanitarian causes. Kermit was used in the relief mission in Bosnia and by HIV/AIDS researchers in England, and it provided the communications backbone for the 1994 Brazilian national elections, the largest and most complex in history up to that time.
"We enjoy the work, the technical challenges, the contact with people around the world, and the chance to lend a hand when we can," said da Cruz.
In recent years, the Internet and the World Wide Web have surpassed Kermit as a popular desktop communications tool for "ordinary users," but Kermit continues to be an invaluable asset in more specialized areas, such as the Space Station experiment.
"By keeping pace with evolving technology and the increasing demand for security and automation, Kermit has grown into a powerful tool for the creation of secure communications application and continues to thrive in the medical, scientific, engineering, manufacturing, and business sectors," said da Cruz.