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2020 vision

As they imagine the Internet of 2020, computer scientists are starting from scratch and re-thinking everything: from IP addresses to DNS to routing tables to Internet security in general. They're envisioning how the Internet might work without some of the most fundamental features of today's ISP and enterprise networks.

Their goal is audacious: to create an Internet without so many security breaches, with better trust and built-in identity management. Researchers are trying to build an Internet that's more reliable, higher performing and better able to manage exabytes of content. And they're hoping to build an Internet that extends connectivity to the most remote regions of the world, perhaps to other planets.

This high-risk, long-range Internet research will kick into high gear this year, as the US government ramps up funding to allow a handful of projects to move out of the lab and into prototype. One exampple is the world's largest virtual network lab currently being built across 14 college campuses and two nationwide backbone networks so that it can engage thousands – perhaps millions – of end users in its experiments.

The stakes are high. Some experts fear the Internet will collapse under the weight of ever-increasing cyber attacks, an increasing demand for multimedia content and the requirements for new mobile applications unless a new network architecture is developed.

So the research comes at a critical juncture for the Internet, which is now so closely intertwined with the global economy that its failure is inconceivable. As more critical infrastructure – such as the banking system, the electric grid and government-to-citizen communications – migrate to the Internet, there's a consensus that the network needs an overhaul.

Anmd, at the heart of all of this research, is a desire to make the Internet more secure.

“The security is so utterly broken that it's time to wake up now and do it a better way,” says Van Jacobson, a Research Fellow at PARC who is pitching a novel approach dubbed content-centric networking. “The model we're using today is just wrong. It can't be made to work. We need a much more information-oriented view of security, where the context of information and the trust of information have to be much more central.”

One of our real concerns at present is trustworthiness because all of our critical infrastructure is increasingly Net-based. Phone systems are moving from circuits to IP. The banking system is dependent on IP.

And the Internet is vulnerable, because when it was invented, security was bolted onto the architecture after-the-fact instead of being designed in from the beginning.

Here are some of the neat ideas currently being worked on:

* Software-defined networking based on an open system that will allow users to program deep into network devices. The new architecture would remove the intelligence from switches and routers and place these smarts in an external controller.

* Opportunistic networks that would use peer-to-peer communications to transfer communications if the network is unavailable. The network would have intermittent connections,ccompared to the Internet which assumes you are connected all of the time, so it would mean rethinking everything about the Internet's architecture.

* Davis Social Links is an architecture based on social networking that uses the format of Facebook, with its friends’ based ripple effect of connectivity, to propagate connections on the Internet. The idea is that it creates connections based on trust and true identities.

* Another radical proposal to change the Internet infrastructure is content-centric networking, which aims to address the problem of massive amounts of content – increasingly multimedia – that exists on the Internet. Instead of using IP addresses to identify the machines that store content, content-centric networking uses file names and URLs to identify the content itself. In this model, trust comes from the data itself, not from the machine it's stored on.

Even if some of these ideas reach beyond the labs and small pilot schemes, then the future should be very interesting. One thing, however, is certain: we can’t keep trying to patch up the current Internet.

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