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Thursday, March 09, 2006

Why Reinventing the internet?

IF A planet-wide data network, akin to the internet, were built on Mars, what would it look like? That might sound like a silly question, but it raises an important point. The design of computer networks is constrained by the need to be compatible with the internet and other systems that have grown up over the past four decades. What if network designers could start again with a clean slate, unencumbered by today's messy reality?

Visions of the future

That said, it seems reasonable to assume that the number of devices on the network will continue to multiply in new and unforeseen ways. So researchers are starting from the assumption that communications chips and sensors will eventually be embedded in almost everything, from furniture to cereal boxes—“hundreds of billions of such devices”, suggested one group of engineers in a working paper last year. And while today's internet traffic is generally initiated by humans—as they send e-mails, click on web links, or download music tracks—in future, the vast majority of traffic may be “machine to machine” communications: things flirting with other things. To further complicate matters, these things will probably be connected wirelessly, and will move around.

Soul of a new network

The idea of metanets also provides an answer to the question of how to deploy a new clean-slate internet. Metanets would, in effect, allow multiple internets to run in parallel. There could then be competition between different protocols; and if one of the metanet protocols turned out to be much more secure, for instance, then security-sensitive users would have a reason to adopt it. Perhaps the clean-slate approach is not quite as esoteric and academic as it seems.

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