Wednesday, May 23, 2007

I think they'll have to make the tubes bigger ...

I find this kind of news interesting, even though I don't understand half of it. Over the weekend, the technology section of the Globe and Mail had an article on the Clean Slate Design for the Internet Project. Untangling the World Wide Web touches on the ad hoc way the Internet has grown, with resulting security and bandwidth issues. Writer Christopher Dreher says:

Because of ad-hoc innovations, the Web has become a kind of unwieldy trailer park of technology – where security and even fundamental stability remain highly problematic.

For me, this is all interesting partly because of what anyone who's anticipating the convergence of the Internet with television and movie delivery systems -- or the possible evolution of the world wide web into a three-dimensional virtual world, or who wants to watch a lot of porn -- has probably heard by now: the Internet as it exists today does not have the ability to handle that traffic.

The Internet was not designed for Second Life or “adult entertainment” videos either – high-volume, resource-consuming uses of the network. If just 1 per cent of the DVDs that NetFlicks sends to customers every day were downloaded, we would need a tenfold increase in the current core capacity of the Internet.

So a group of scientists at Stanford University are not looking at ways to continue "jury-rigging" solutions for what they see as fundamental flaws of the current structure. They're looking at wiping the slate clean, starting over, in a controlled and planned manner. It all sounds so ... scientific.

“In every other high-tech field, it's usually typical to see massive innovation,” Prof. (Nick) McKeown says. “And although we've seen huge implementation of new applications, Internet technology is built on the same ideas it was built on 40 years ago.”

Even those involved in the Clean Slate project don't necessarily believe it will wipe out the existing web -- they're cautious scientists out to test a hypothesis, after all -- though it might offer a parallel system with fewer of the limitations.

Although the work at Clean Slate involves highly technical considerations – such as a redesign of the wireless spectrum allocation to better use limited network capacity – its success could greatly affect our daily lives.

Better wireless spectrum allocation, for instance, would finally mean faster and more foolproof data communication between handheld wireless devices such as phones and PDAs. It would also fulfill at last the promises of devices that combine the capacities of a television, a DVD player and a home computer.

Likewise, improving network security would mean that instead of spending billions of dollars preventing spam, virus attacks, malicious hacking and other dangers, businesses could expand on some of the life-altering real-time uses imagined by pioneers of the Internet.

Remote surgery, for instance, has been performed on a very limited basis since its first success in Canada in 2001. But it can take place only over dedicated fibre-optic cables because the Internet networks used by the general public have too many unforeseen variables, including security concerns and possible blips in connectivity.

These issues also prevent a range of other industries and many critical infrastructures – such as water and electric plants or airports and highways – from fully using the Internet. “If air-traffic control were run over the public Internet,” Prof. McKeown says of the current system, “then I wouldn't fly.”

Even a clean slate solution might have issues of its own, though. Besides the admission that innovation is unpredictable (“No one could have predicted that the Web would come along,” Prof. McKeown says. “And the same type of unforeseeable thing could happen."), there are challenges the project expects to face:

The real hitch? Ask telecommunications companies such as Bell and AT&T, which became Internet providers in the mid-1990s in the hopes of making huge fortunes. “One of the dirty little secrets of the network is that the network infrastructure is not economically sustainable or profitable,” Prof. McKeown says.

In fact, he wonders if the only economically sustainable model for the Internet may be a nationally funded or regulated infrastructure – or some sort of government monopoly. (Though he adds that, “in the current economic and political climate” of the U.S., proposing this idea “is nearly suicide.”)

Another thorny issue facing advocates of a “clean slate” approach to the Internet is how to balance privacy and security concerns. Making the network less open to spam and viruses, for example, also means curtailing the freedom and anonymity of the Internet.

Still, it's exciting stuff. Whether they're on their way to a whole new Internet structure, or coming up with solutions that can run in tandem with the current Internet, or just taking a hard look at how to improve a flawed system, it's a huge step towards even more innovation in an arena that has been nothing but mind-blowing innovation in a short period of time. Well, innovation, and a whole lot of porn.

For more, see Stanford's Clean Slate Design for the Internet site.


"I'm fairly sure that if they took all the porn off the Internet, there'd only be one website left, and it would be called Bring Back The Porn."
- Dr. Cox, Scrubs