Researchers explore scrapping
The Associated Press April 13, 2007, 1:17PM EST
Researchers explore scrapping Internet
By ANICK JESDANUN
Although it has already taken nearly four decades to get this far in
building the Internet, some university researchers with the federal
government's blessing want to scrap all that and start over.
The idea may seem unthinkable, even absurd, but many believe a
"clean slate" approach is the only way to truly address
security, mobility and other challenges that have cropped up since
UCLA professor Leonard Kleinrock helped supervise the first exchange
of meaningless test data between two machines on Sept. 2, 1969.
The Internet "works well in many situations but was designed for
completely different assumptions," said Dipankar Raychaudhuri, a
Rutgers University professor overseeing three clean-slate projects.
"It's sort of a miracle that it continues to work well
No longer constrained by slow connections and computer processors and
high costs for storage, researchers say the time has come to rethink
the Internet's underlying architecture, a move that could mean
replacing networking equipment and rewriting software on computers to
better channel future traffic over the existing pipes.
Even Vinton Cerf, one of the Internet's founding fathers as
co-developer of the key communications techniques, said the exercise
was "generally healthy" because the current technology
"does not satisfy all needs."
One challenge in any reconstruction, though, will be balancing the
interests of various constituencies. The first time around,
researchers were able to toil away in their labs quietly. Industry is
playing a bigger role this time, and law enforcement is bound to make
its needs for wiretapping known.
There's no evidence they are meddling yet, but once any research looks
promising, "a number of people (will) want to be in the drawing
room," said Jonathan Zittrain, a law professor affiliated with
Oxford and Harvard universities. "They'll be wearing coats and
ties and spilling out of the venue."
The National Science Foundation wants to build an experimental
research network known as the Global Environment for Network
Innovations, or GENI, and is funding several projects at universities
and elsewhere through Future Internet Network Design, or FIND.
Rutgers, Stanford, Princeton, Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts
Institute of Technology are among the universities pursuing individual
projects. Other government agencies, including the Defense Department,
have also been exploring the concept.
The European Union has also backed research on such initiatives,
through a program known as Future Internet Research and
Experimentation, or FIRE. Government officials and researchers met
last month in Zurich to discuss early findings and goals.
A new network could run parallel with the current Internet and
eventually replace it, or perhaps aspects of the research could go
into a major overhaul of the existing architecture.
These clean-slate efforts are still in their early stages, though, and
aren't expected to bear fruit for another 10 or 15 years -- assuming
Congress comes through with funding.
Guru Parulkar, who will become executive director of Stanford's
initiative after heading NSF's clean-slate programs, estimated that
GENI alone could cost $350 million, while government, university and
industry spending on the individual projects could collectively reach
$300 million. Spending so far has been in the tens of millions of
And it could take billions of dollars to replace all the software and
hardware deep in the legacy systems.
Clean-slate advocates say the cozy world of researchers in the 1970s
and 1980s doesn't necessarily mesh with the realities and needs of the
"The network is now mission critical for too many people, when in
the (early days) it was just experimental," Zittrain said.
The Internet's early architects built the system on the principle of
trust. Researchers largely knew one another, so they kept the shared
network open and flexible -- qualities that proved key to its rapid
But spammers and hackers arrived as the network expanded and could
roam freely because the Internet doesn't have built-in mechanisms for
knowing with certainty who sent what.
The network's designers also assumed that computers are in fixed
locations and always connected. That's no longer the case with the
proliferation of laptops, personal digital assistants and other mobile
devices, all hopping from one wireless access point to another, losing
their signals here and there.
Engineers tacked on improvements to support mobility and improved
security, but researchers say all that adds complexity, reduces
performance and, in the case of security, amounts at most to bandages
in a high-stakes game of cat and mouse.
Workarounds for mobile devices "can work quite well if a small
fraction of the traffic is of that type," but could overwhelm
computer processors and create security holes when 90 percent or more
of the traffic is mobile, said Nick McKeown, co-director of Stanford's
The Internet will continue to face new challenges as applications
require guaranteed transmissions -- not the "best effort"
approach that works better for e-mail and other tasks with less time
Think of a doctor using teleconferencing to perform a surgery
remotely, or a customer of an Internet-based phone service needing to
make an emergency call. In such cases, even small delays in relaying
data can be deadly.
And one day, sensors of all sorts will likely be Internet capable.
Rather than create workarounds each time, clean-slate researchers want
to redesign the system to easily accommodate any future technologies,
said Larry Peterson, chairman of computer science at Princeton and
head of the planning group for the NSF's GENI.
Even if the original designers had the benefit of hindsight, they
might not have been able to incorporate these features from the
get-go. Computers, for instance, were much slower then, possibly too
weak for the computations needed for robust authentication.
"We made decisions based on a very different technical
landscape," said Bruce Davie, a fellow with network-equipment
maker Cisco Systems Inc., which stands to gain from selling new
products and incorporating research findings into its existing
"Now, we have the ability to do all sorts of things at very high
speeds," he said. "Why don't we start thinking about how we
take advantage of those things and not be constrained by the current
legacy we have?"
Of course, a key question is how to make any transition -- and
researchers are largely punting for now.
"Let's try to define where we think we should end up, what we
think the Internet should look like in 15 years' time, and only then
would we decide the path," McKeown said. "We acknowledge
it's going to be really hard but I think it will be a mistake to be
deterred by that."
Kleinrock, the Internet pioneer at UCLA, questioned the need for a
transition at all, but said such efforts are useful for their
"A thing called GENI will almost surely not become the Internet,
but pieces of it might fold into the Internet as it advances," he
Think evolution, not revolution.
Princeton already runs a smaller experimental network called
PlanetLab, while Carnegie Mellon has a clean-slate project called 100
These days, Carnegie Mellon professor Hui Zhang said he no longer
feels like "the outcast of the community" as a champion of
Construction on GENI could start by 2010 and take about five years to
complete. Once operational, it should have a decade-long lifespan.
FIND, meanwhile, funded about two dozen projects last year and is
evaluating a second round of grants for research that could ultimately
be tested on GENI.
These go beyond projects like Internet2 and National LambdaRail, both
of which focus on next-generation needs for speed.
Any redesign may incorporate mechanisms, known as virtualization, for
multiple networks to operate over the same pipes, making further
transitions much easier. Also possible are new structures for data
packets and a replacement of Cerf's TCP/IP communications
"Almost every assumption going into the current design of the
Internet is open to reconsideration and challenge," said
Parulkar, the NSF official heading to Stanford. "Researchers may
come up with wild ideas and very innovative ideas that may not have a
lot to do with the current Internet."
Associated Press Business Writer Aoife White in Brussels, Belgium,
contributed to this report.
On the Net:
Stanford program: http://cleanslate.stanford.edu
Carnegie Mellon program: http://100x100network.org
Rutgers program: http://orbit-lab.org
NSF's GENI: http://geni.net