April 13, 2007
(NEW YORK)—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.
"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
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
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
"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 dollars.
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,"
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
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
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.
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 line.
"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 out-of-the-box thinking.
"A thing called GENI will almost surely not
become the Internet, but pieces of it might fold into the Internet as it
advances," he said.
Think evolution, not revolution. Princeton
already runs a smaller experimental network called PlanetLab, while Carnegie
Mellon has a clean-slate project called 100 x 100.
These days, Carnegie Mellon professor Hui Zhang said he no longer
feels like "the outcast of the community" as a champion of clean-slate
designs. 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
Also possible are new structures for data
packets and a replacement of Cerf's TCP/IP communications protocols.
"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."