Monday, April 16, 2007

Time for a Clean Slate on the Internet?

If you've longed for a return to the quiet days of gopher internet searching, before GUI (graphical user interfaces) made the Web so accessible that it's become a huge mall with unsavory, shadowy characters sneaking in the wings with stolen goods and porn, join the club. The Boston Globe offers a story today about efforts at research institutions around the world to create a "clean slate" version to replace or run parallel to the current Internet. The article is worth reading, but here is a nugget that reaches many of the main points:

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 commercial Internet.

"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 growth.

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 clean-slate program.

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 sensitivity.

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. (snip)

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 out-of-the-box thinking.

One big question is how the transition will be accomplished, as the article points out. There is such a huge mercantile presence on the Web, now, that some form of the commercial Internet will carry forward. The researchers want to reclaim the networking functions for researchers (and the military?) and create a new venue that will incorporate new technologies, and avoid the pitfalls of the current Web. We, who sit on the outskirts, will have to wait and see. Be sure to scroll to the end of the article for four links to current clean slate projects.

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