Researchers Explore Scrapping Internet

Engineers see problems with current system, working on models that could replace today's design


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.

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 much easier. Also possible are new structures for data packets and a replacement of Cerf's TCP/IP communications protocols.