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As the National Science Foundation (NSF) gears up to fund research into new Internet architectures that will provide a more secure and innovation-friendly network (see the three-part “The Internet is Broken”), it will get a running start from existing research efforts, such as PlanetLab, a collection of 1,000 researchers at 300 institutions around the world developing an “overlay network” of software. This global network runs on routers that allow network operators to do everything from manage traffic more efficiently to detect worms and viruses more quickly.

Larry Peterson is a computer scientist at Princeton University and director of PlanetLab. In an exchange with Technology Review, he explained the rationale behind the NSO project, called Global Environment for Networking Investigations, or GENI.

Technology Review: The problems with the Internet are fairly well understood. What are the basic views of what needs to be done at a technical level?

Larry Peterson: There is universal agreement that creating the “Future Internet,” which meets the demands of the 21st century, is both a national priority and ripe with research challenges and opportunities. But there are two general schools of thought as to how to pursue this goal.

One view is that we may be at an inflection point in the societal utility of the Internet, with eroding trust, reduced innovation, and slowing rates of update. This view focuses on assumptions built into today’s 30-year-old architecture that limit its ability to cope with emerging threats and opportunities, and argues that it is time for a “clean slate” reconceptualization of the Internet architecture.

The other view takes today’s Internet as a given, and argues that future innovation will come in the form of new services and applications running on top of the Internet. Over time, these innovations will likely have a transformational effect on the Internet, but [this argument goes] it is simply not practical to think in terms of replacing all of today’s Internet infrastructure.

TR: To the casual reader, “clean slate” sounds like you are arguing for replacing all of today’s Internet infrastructure. Are you?

LP: No. I interpret Future Internet very broadly, to include innovations at any level of the architecture. Research is equally likely to result in alternative protocols and architectures running inside the network, or in new applications and services as overlays on top of today’s Internet. Collectively, all these layers will form the Future Internet.

While researchers should employ clean-slate thinking that is not constrained by today’s Internet, it does not imply that the outcome will necessarily be an entirely new Internet. In other words, clean slate is a “process,” not a “result.”

It is likely that different researchers will chose to leverage different aspects of today’s Internet, while exploring alternatives to other elements. There will likely be opportunities at the boundary between these two perspectives, that is, in exploring how today’s architecture is best evolved over time to better support emerging overlay services.

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