Next-Generation Networks

Today’s Internet is like “second-class mail,” but solutions exist, says Doug Van Houweling, CEO of Internet2.

What if a privileged few could buy the best possible Internet technology – what would they get? The answer is out there: created by the advanced networking consortium called Internet2, it’s high-performance connections built for, and used by, more than 240 research and academic institutions in the United States. Internet2 networks handle such jobs as the transmission of torrents of data from astronomical observations and physics experiments.

While the average Internet user can’t tap into Internet2, its technologies show what might be possible in an idealized world: everything from high-definition streaming television to ever-more complex, multiplayer, 3-D online games. Technology Review chief correspondent David Talbot asked Douglas Van Houweling, CEO of the Ann Arbor, MI-based Internet2, how – and when – these technologies can make the transition from a closed research environment to the public.

Technology Review: What is Internet2 accomplishing for the research community it serves?

Doug Van Houweling: Today, scientists throughout the world are collaborating via Internet2’s network on things like high-energy physics experiments, medical diagnoses, and the sharing of vast amounts of supercomputer data. Internet2 is led by more than 200 U.S. universities working with industry and government to develop and deploy advanced network applications and technologies for research and higher education.

Today, over 240 institutions, 34 state education networks, and 70 international networks connect to Internet2 networks to facilitate teaching and learning programs, to enable investigations into new networking technologies, and to make revolutionary Internet applications possible. We also have close to 70 corporations from diverse industries who are active collaborators within the Internet2 community. These corporate members play a key role in understanding and developing emerging technologies and how to make them routinely available to hundreds of millions of people on the global Internet.

TR: What’s the problem with today’s Internet?

DVH: Internet technology has begun to reach limits that could pose barriers to future economic growth. The proliferation of closed architectures, the tendency for companies to protect their interests rather than invest in standards-based solutions, increased security and safety concerns across a wide range of sectors, and ongoing scalability challenges all stand in the way of an advanced Internet.

TR: What do you expect the average consumer would want from an advanced Internet?

DVH: It is only a matter of time before consumers will make the same capacity demands on the network in their day-to-day use of network applications that the research and education community has today. Telecommunications companies have been talking for years about bringing fiber to the homes of consumers to enable the delivery of demanding digital content. But services like HDTV-quality video and immersive surround sound create demands that destabilize today’s Internet. So the concept of “if you build it, they will come” simply will not work in the current environment – simply putting fiber in place will not do the job.

TR: What do you predict will be possible in the future?

DVH: I believe the network of the future will support a whole new set of applications – immersive collaboration environments, resource-sharing, real-time computation-intensive simulations, HDTV-quality video on demand, and many others that probably can’t even be imagined today. These applications will lead to further fundamental changes in the way we work, the way we learn, the way we entertain, the way we govern, and the way we live. We see three key areas of work we think are required to unleash the unrealized potential of the Internet: optical networking, federated authentication, and reliable end-to-end network performance.

TR: How can we tackle the basic problem of increasing bandwidth to support all this?

DVH: The Internet2 community has taken an innovative and ambitious approach to this pressing scalability issue. By creating a hybrid model of networking that combines the current IP-based technology and optical circuit paths – similar to the traditional telephone system –we believe consumers and businesses will have the ability to demand any type of broadband service they need when they want it, how they want it, and where they want it. This type of on-demand capacity can have far-reaching effects on industries across the board, from medicine and health sciences, to the arts, to entertainment and well beyond.

TR: Do you have solutions for tackling spam and various kinds of Internet fraud?

DVH: Consumers and businesses alike are bombarded daily by spam, viruses, and other nasty side effects of the Internet. It’s almost become cliché to ask “What are we going to do about spam?” Yet the problem only seems to get worse and no one really seems to have the answers. So, whom can you trust? I see a network future with trust at the core, where communities are formed based on agreed-upon rules and frameworks, called federations.

A federation is an association of organizations that use a common set of attributes, practices, and policies to exchange information about their users and resources in order to enable secure, authenticated collaborations and transactions. In a sense, a federation is like a village, but it is not geographically defined. In Internet2, we now have global federations of scientists, artists, and students working on joint projects. I believe that in the future, trusted communities and federations will enable Internet users to receive only the information they want, and because communication must be authenticated, all unwanted information can be easily traced back to its true source, eliminating the anonymity of spammers and scammers.

TR: And what about basic performance – after all, you can’t rely on the Internet today to give pure unbroken TV or telephone signals.

DVH: The Internet as we know it today is what’s called “best effort” by design – there’s no guarantee that information crossing the network will arrive within a specified time. You might think of the Internet as second-class mail. In many cases this leads to an unpredictable and often unreliable experience for end-users whose applications require on-schedule delivery. A good example of an application that needs scheduled (priority mail) service is Voice over IP (VoIP), an increasingly common use of the Internet. On any given day, a user can experience varying levels of performance on the same Internet connection. When the connection breaks or there is a loss of connectivity, it often takes a highly skilled professional to intervene to resolve the issue.

Even today, resolving network issues is more of an art form than a science, which makes it particularly difficult for an average user to troubleshoot problems themselves. Architecting the network with embedded performance and diagnostic technology will create a far more reliable and seamless Internet experience for consumers and businesses alike. Without reliability and easy means to troubleshoot network performance issues, next-generation applications and services will never see broad adoption.

TR: What’s the grand vision and when can we expect to see it realized?

DVH: We need a smarter, more reliable, secure, fast Internet that enables new ways to conduct science, engage in business, educate anytime and anywhere, and bind communities and families together in rich new ways. Through the partnerships between the higher education and research community, government, and industry, we already know many of the elements that will make up this next-generation network: operating on hundreds of waves of light over advanced fiber optic cables with upgraded Internet protocols; delivering ultra high-speed end-to-end performance; and smart software that protects content, protects privacy, authorizes users, deflects spam, and secures transactions. I am optimistic that such an Internet will be realized through the combined efforts of organizations like Internet2 all over the world.

By working hand in hand with our corporate members, the Internet2 community seeks to put these new technologies in the hands of businesses and consumers over the next 5 to 10 years. By providing corporate members with a stepping stone between the research labs and the commercial roll-out of products and services, Internet2 enables new technologies to be tested and developed in a futuristic environment. Corporate members then take what they learn and incorporate these capabilities into their products and services. Already today, technologies developed within our community have made their way into the commercial sector; for example, over 150 institutions have adopted Internet2-developed federated authentication software. This is just one example of many of how we are transferring new technology to the general public.

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