Exporting our Competence

There are several initiatives that have ambitions to replace the Internet. Some of these, in the States and Europe, we know about, but the ones that should concern us are the ones we know almost nothing of. In China, the funding and the political will is at its strongest. 'They are so much more clear sighted than we are. And they need the money!' . We sent our man in the raincoat, Richard Morris, to investigate.

GENI in the bottle?

‘It is almost a total contradiction that the early adopters of the Internet – who have led dramatic changes in technology and society over the past few years – are now becoming the Luddites, refusing to move on to consider the next stage of the information age revolution.

David Kennedy, the director at Eurescom


‘The Internet is a great cosmic supermarket in which the sensible and worthy rub gigabytes with the daft and duplicitous. So yup it needs change. But the smart money, and certainly mine, is not on Europe or us in America cracking the codes but on China doing it. They are so much more clear sighted than we are. And they need the money!’

William Frankel

It seems hard to credit that just 18 years ago Tim Berners-Lee’s interesting little idea of the world wide web started a chain reaction that was to affect every business in the world and spawn the greatest communications revolution since Gutenberg’s printing press. If the web had been spun from traditional science, he would have been a Nobel candidate.

But nearly two decades on the threat of Cybercrime, child pornography, crippling viruses and spam to say nothing of the demands for mobility and scalability is encouraging the IT industry’s finest minds not to think about how best to police the web (perhaps an impossibility in any case) but to invest in a $400m successor to the Internet.

It is something technology experts are already referring to as the next rendition of the virtual world – and competition is fierce.

Researchers in the US want at least $350m (£175m) to build the grandly named Global Environment for Network Innovations otherwise known as GENI – touted by some as the possible replacement for today’s giant mass of cables and computers that covers the globe.

GENI is supported by America’s National Science Foundation (NSF) and is being developed by the much-lauded high tech firm of BBN Technologies who built the original ARPANET in 1969.

With a timescale of around a decade to 15 years, for once the fast world of innovation is moving rather ponderously.

BBN believe the key to a new e-revolution revolves around ‘mesh networks’, which link together many computers to create more powerful, reliable connections to the Internet.

By using small meshes of many machines that share a pipeline to the net instead of relying on lots of parallel connections, those in the know say they can create a system that is far more intelligent and less prone to attack than the present Internet.

‘In little more than 25 years, the Internet has gone from an obscure research network for the miliary and academics to a critical piece of the national communication infrastructure,’ said Deborah Crawford acting assistant director of the NSF’s Computer and nformation Science and Engineering directorate.

‘GENI will give scientists a clean slate on which to imagine a completely new Internet that will likely be materially different from that of today. We want to ensure that this next sage of transformation will be guided by the best possible network science, design, experimentation and technical changes. It will be driven by overaching visions of how the future might look,’ added Crawford.

Though millions of dollars are being pumped into academic research, bringing to mind the early days of computer networking such as the ARPANET, today’s American computer scientists have less support from the Bush administration, which has substantially reduced funding and channelled budgets instead into homeland security projects.

With monetry limitations in mind, some technology experts have warned that creating an entirely new Internet from scratch is a big gamble.

William Frankel, a former communications network consultant at MIT is among those who do not believe a clean-slate approach is necessarily the right way forward.

‘There’s a huge risk in doing completely new research that fixes a problem but then turns out to be useless at the things the Internet did well,’ he said.

‘There aren’t that many people out there who can do a completely new design in any case – and I’m not sure that it would be a good thing to do. It would also cost so many millions of dollars more. You don’t want to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

‘For these reasons I think it’s best to talk to other countries about how to modify the net. There are a lot of very clever people out there who are enthusiastic amateurs or have a bright idea and we’re not using them.

‘ My idea would be to make the whole thing into one giant non-commercial project and reach a consensus. But because there’s a lot of private money backing this project, people are expecting a big return on their investment, so it’s a non-deal.

What he did with the web was
to transform the Internet into
something usable not just
by geeks but by normal human
beings.

‘Personally I’d like to see Tim Berners-Lee consulted about the net. What he did with the web was to transform the Internet into something usable not just by geeks but by normal human beings. Instead of sending a string of incomprehensible characters to a distant server requesting information, you could simply click on the name of a file or a machine and it would be dispatched. We need him,’ maintains Frankel.

Net Gains or Losses

People keep trying to
evolve the network, but
it hasn’t really changed
in 20 or so years

Dipankar Raychaudhuri, a professor at Rutgers University in New York is a quiet man but one who approaches the voluble energy levels of the actor Robin Williams when expounding on his own subject. Many believe he will be the first to invent the ideal future network model – well, according to many of his alumni.

Raychaudhuri is working on an alternative system to GENI but confesses that making progress is tougher than he thought it would be. ‘People keep trying to evolve the network, but it hasn’t really changed in 20 or so years,’ he said. ‘Once you’ve built something as large and complex as the Internet it is difficult to start over again.’

One of Professor Raychaudhuri’s projects involves short-range communication. He claims that the technology could be put inside cars, allowing them to talk to each other, and other systems, to bring long-held visions of safer, automated driving into reality.

‘One option is to spread information around the planet in a different way: rather than scattering small pieces of the network across hundreds of millions of computers like jigsaw puzzle pieces, each containing one small piece of the Internet, alternative systems could be able to keep a local copy of the net.

Instead of surfing in public view, users would spend much of their time wandering around inside their own computers – leaving them less vulnerable to attacks from hackers and criminals,’ he adds.

The European Model

In Europe, similar projects to GENI are under way as part of the EU’s Future and Internet Research (Fire) programme, which is expected to cost at least $54m or £27m.

And not before time according to David Kennedy, the director at Eurescom, the European Institute for Research and Strategic Studies in Telecommunications.

‘Europe is heading for a
huge Internet crash’

He disagrees with William Frankel that consensus is the best way to find an alternative to the net and says that Europe has to take responsibility for the future of the Internet in Europe – a situation helped no doubt by Europe’s new research and development initiative – the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7).

FP7 will see more than 7bn euros (£4.6bn) a year handed to investigators including technologists to advance the ‘knowledge economy’ and, by extension, boost the EU’s economy.

‘Europe is heading for a huge Internet crash,’ says Kennedy rather gloomily.

‘If we continue as we are then it is likely that the standards of service in the Internet will start to decline dramatically by 2010. The issue now is to work out a European solution for the European market but some people are dead against it because they feel insecure having such a discussion without bringing in players from the US or Asia.

‘Once we have our ideas on what we want, we can present our concepts and discuss them on the world stage. Or current practice of sending individual experts to inter-continental meetings is merely exporting our competence and handing our industrial advantage to others.

‘It is almost a total contradiction that the early adopters of the Internet – who have led dramatic changes in technology and society over the past few years – are now becoming the Luddites refusing to move on to consider the next stage of the information age revolution.

‘Yesterday’s revolutionaries have become the roadblock. They are mentally attached to the solution invented by them and can not, nor do they want to, see its limits and are incapable of moving forward.’

An Internet Dark Age

Kennedy has concluded that there should be three immediate steps to take if Europe is not to witness an Internet dark age.

‘We to develop an architecture: We know we will not get it right first time, but if we do not have a first time we will never get it right – it’s an obvious starting point.

Look at changing identity management: A simple, but again obvious, challenge now is to solve the identification and protection of individual identities.

In 15 years we should have developed clear unique ways of identifying people. People using the future networks should be recognised by the network so they, and they alone, can access their service portfolio. Strong measures should be in place to prevent identity theft.

This will be a key factor for protecting digital rights and ensuring the digital commerce is going to work fairly.

‘Having an effective way of identifying people will allow us to determine where they are and how to get their communications to them. We have to demand something more efficient than semi-random packet forwarding in the hope that some other node knows what to do with it, and it also must be more flexible than the telephone book. Maybe there is a possibility for the concept of the home-location register to be expanded to take account of names, nicknames and even the context people are in.

Finally, we need to at routing. It requires intelligence in the network to address the problem where we want the nodes to be autonomous in handling their traffic, but we also want them to be aware of the greater network context so that their independent actions do not generate problems for other network nodes.

Some of the original network management concepts need to be revised and applied here. The question of signalling being in-band or out of band could have a major effect on the management capabilities and the robustness of the network.

‘To answer your question about a dark age, well I cannot see Europe providing efficient global services unless we stand back and take a long hard look at the problems of today, where they are leading and how we can avoid them in the future.’

A few days after speaking to William Kennedy, I telephoned William Frankel again and told him of my conversation with the boss at Eurescom and asked him for his thoughts.

‘I think smart entrepreneurs have seen the potential of the Internet as a money-machine – they always have of course.

‘Tim Berners-Lee joined up the dots to create the world wide web, Bill Gates turning Microsoft on a sixpence in the mid 1990s to ride its crest, regulators stepping in to bring the lawless new frontier under control.

‘The Internet is a great cosmic supermarket in which the sensible and worthy rub gigabytes with the daft and duplicitous. So yup it needs change. But the smart money, and certainy mine, is not on Europe or us in America cracking the codes but on China doing it. They are so much more clear sighted than we are. And they need the money!’