If you’re like most cyber-citizens, you use the Internet for e-mail, Web searching, chatting with friends, music downloads, and buying books and gifts. More than 600 million people use these services worldwide-far more than anyone could have predicted in the 1970s, when the Internet’s key components were conceived. An estimated $3.9 trillion in business transactions will take place over the Internet in 2003, and the medium’s reach is increasingly global: an astonishing 24 percent of Brazilians, 30 percent of Chinese, and 72 percent of Americans now go online at least once per month.
Still, despite its enormous impact, today’s Internet is like a 1973 Buick refitted with air bags and emissions controls. Its decades-old infrastructure has been rigged out with the Web and all it enables (like e-commerce), plus technologies such as streaming media, peer-to-peer file sharing, and videoconferencing; but it’s still a 1973 Buick. Now, a grass-roots group of nearly 100 leading computer scientists, backed by heavyweight industrial sponsors, is working on replacing it with a new, vastly smarter model.
The project is called PlanetLab, and within the next three years, researchers say, it will help revitalize the Internet, eventually enabling you to
* forget about hauling your laptop around. No matter where you go, you’ll be able to instantly recreate your entire private computer workspace, program for program and document for document, on any Internet terminal;
* escape the disruption caused by Internet worms and viruses-which inflicted an average of $81,000 in repair costs per company per incident in 2002-because the network itself will detect and crush rogue data packets before they get a chance to spread to your office or home;
* instantly retrieve video and other bandwidth-hogging data, no matter how many other users are competing for the same resources;
* archive your tax returns, digital photographs, family videos, and all your other data across the Internet itself, securely and indestructibly, for decades, making hard disks and recordable CDs seem as quaint as 78 RPM records.
These predicted PlanetLab innovations-with the potential to revolutionize home computing, e-commerce, and corporate information technology practices-can’t be incorporated into the existing Net; that would be too disruptive. Instead, the PlanetLab researchers, who hail from Princeton, MIT, the University of California, Berkeley, and more than 50 other institutions, are building their network on top of the Internet. But their new machines-called smart nodes-will vastly increase its processing power and data storage capability, an idea that has quickly gained support from the National Science Foundation and industry players such as Intel, Hewlett-Packard, and Google.
Since starting out in March 2002, PlanetLab has linked 175 smart nodes at 79 sites in 13 countries, with plans to reach 1,000 nodes by 2006. It’s the newest and hottest of several large-scale research efforts that have sought to address the Internet’s limitations (see “The Internet’s Reinventions”). “The Internet has reached a plateau in terms of what it can do,” says Larry Peterson, a Princeton computer scientist and the effort’s leader. “The right thing to do is to start over at another level. That’s the idea behind PlanetLab.”