These days, the Internet is absolutely critical to everything around us. So much of what we do, business and pleasure, includes communications traveling across the wire, probably more so than you care to imagine or admit. What would life be like today had the Internet not been developed nearly four decades ago? I shudder to imagine, since my life is so much a part of it. What will it be like in another four decades? Researchers have started an experiment to study the question of how Internet communications may take form in the future.
A Clean Slate
With so many security concerns, design flaws, and mobility questions circling around current Internet technologies, many researchers feel that the only way to tackle the various problems is to completely start from the ground up again. When researchers were developing a lot of technologies in the 1960s and 1970s, the Internet wasn't live; therefore, it was much easier to test, develop, and research without disrupting working communications.
With today's Internet resembling a living and breathing organism, researchers can't just switch things off or easily test new and upcoming technologies on the complicated network. The ramifications of crippling communications are far too great, especially since commerce depends on it directly now. A separate new network needs to be established, and a new approach must be made toward envisioning tomorrow's Internet.
The new vision being established is called the Global Environment for Network Innovation (GENI). The concept isn't actually new, and in fact, the National Science Foundation (NSF) has been working on launching this project for several years. However, the announcement came recently that BBN Technologies Corporation will be given $10 million, spread out over the next four years, to get started on the project so researchers can finally begin. BBN should be experienced in this regard because it was directly related to connecting the very first computers in 1969. That project transformed into the ARPAnet, which was the original backbone of today's Internet.
GENI's project team is located in Cambridge, with Chip Elliott leading as the Project Director. A brief presentation describing many of the initial plans of the office can be downloaded from the GENI Web site.
So what exactly is GENI's goal? According to the site's FAQ section, "emphasis is on enabling researchers to experiment with radical network designs in a way that is far more realistic than they can today. Researchers will be able to build their own new versions of the 'net or to study the 'net in ways that are not possible today."
Many feel GENI will be a direct replacement for today's current Internet architecture. However, the GENI Web site clears up any misunderstanding that the community might have in this regard. Before you get too excited about a new, amazingly secure, blazingly fast Internet, realize that GENI's only purpose within the next few years is to facilitate research. The Web site states, "GENI is a research facility. It is not a replacement for the Internet (or any other communications technology). Rather, the purpose of GENI is to test and mature a wide range of research ideas in data communications and distributed systems."
Other NSF Projects and Research Initiatives
Another initiative the NSF is involved with, directly relating to GENI, is the Future Internet Network Design (FIND), which is funding smaller projects at universities. The goal of FIND is broken down into two very broad concepts. The first deals with requirements for the global network 15 years from now. How network architecture might look and how users might be using the Internet are two concerns the project is handling. The second concept is how researchers might actually re-conceive tomorrow's global network. FIND's job is to research and possibly find answers to these questions. They have to understand how the Internet is going to be used in the distant future before they can build on new concepts and design ideas.
Even the European Union is jumping aboard by backing research through its program, the Future Internet Research and Experimentation (FIRE). FIRE is a research initiative similar to GENI, meaning its long-term goal is to research future Internet concepts, architectures, and protocols to deal with ever-growing concerns of security and the future growth of current Internet technologies.
The Future of the Internet
So what exactly does this all mean, and what does the future hold? Someday, TCP/IP and Ethernet might be legacy terms to us. The original Internet wasn't built with security models included in designs and ideas, because back then people actually had trust in one another. Can you imagine that? I can't because I'm not old enough to. Today, with spammers, viruses, hackers, and identity thieves, the only true way to stay 100 percent secure is to not connect to the Internet at all. A great percentage of traffic flowing across the Internet is nothing more than wasted transmissions in some malignant form.
The purpose of collaborative research initiatives like GENI, FIND, and FIRE is to start the process of shaping what tomorrow's communications might look like. Security is just one concern on many researchers' minds when they consider any fresh network design. With many mobile and wireless uses also being considered, new Internet technologies must promise to embed security and ease of use into one practical networking scheme.
Before you start getting concerned about having to replace that nice, shiny networking equipment you just bought, realize that we're years, if not decades, away from having to worry about the current architectures laid out at the hardware level. Even when the time comes, there would be no possible way to just up and replace the Internet. New and innovative technologies would more than likely have to be laid out in parallel, with old technologies slowly phased out over time. The Internet is far too vast to disrupt on such a large scale.
Regardless of what the future holds, something will have to be done eventually. The current Internet is a patched-together network of ideas, security models, and designs. Many people are actually shocked that it continues to operate. That it does is truly a testament to how flexible the network layer, Internet Protocol, is at piecing together many things. Like everything though, all good things must come to an end, and someday research initiatives like GENI and FIRE might pave the way for our future Internet. Dial-up, Ethernet, and Cat 5...what's that?