The Future Internet
Challenges and initiatives
In the last three decades, the Internet has developed from an arcane network for scientists into the global hub for information and communication, permeating all areas of public and private life. The Internet can be compared to a log cabin built for woodcutters, which has been expanded to a multi-storey building for businessmen and shoppers, without changing the foundation. So, not surprisingly, the need has arisen to review the architecture of the Internet in order to address its current problems and make it viable for the future.
The development of the Internet
When Charley Kline, student programmer at the University of California in Los Angeles, sent the first text message via the ARPANET on 29 October 1969, he could not have known how the networking of distant computers would lead to a change of global communications, society, and economy three decades later. Especially not, if you look at the humble results of this first effort: the transmitted message was “lo” – the system crashed before he could finish typing “login”. The term “Internet” was coined five years later, in 1974, by Vinton Cerf, whose group at Stanford University created the TCP/IP protocol suite, which is still the basis of the Internet.
In the late 1980s, the Internet gained momentum in Europe, driven by the CERN in Switzerland, which opened its first external TCP/IP connections in 1989. In the same year, CERN researcher Tim Berners-Lee invented the World Wide Web. However, the real Internet boost started only after the Mosaic Web browser was introduced in 1993, a graphical browser developed by a team led by Marc Andreessen at the University of Illinois.
These developments are reflected in the rapid growth of the Internet starting in the late 1980s. According to the Internet Systems Consortium, the number of Internet hosts grew from 213 in 1981 and 159,000 in 1989 to 3.9 million in 1993 and 541,7 million in January 2008. The number of Internet users reached 1.3 billion in December 2007, which equals about one fifth, or 20 percent, of the global population.
The rapid growth of the Internet, both in terms of data traffic and in terms of diversity of services, has led to a high complexity of the Internet architecture, which is ever harder to manage, the more the Internet grows and the more new services are added. Over time, a number of additional protocols have been put on top of the TCP/IP protocol suite, in order to accommodate the increased requirements of fixed and mobile Internet services. There are currently close to 40 different protocols on the data plane and more than 40 protocols on the control plane of the Internet.
The entirety of these protocols looks more like a patchwork than a consistent architecture that addresses current and future challenges. In the course of deploying these patches, almost all of the original architectural principles have been breached. This has led to a number of urgent problems, particularly in the areas of security and scalability. Some pundits even speculate that the Internet may soon be on the brink of collapsing, if its rapid growth continues.
The challenges resulting from the current patchwork architecture are manifold, and the goals for the envisioned architecture are sometimes conflicting. Although there is no common and agreed vision yet, most experts would probably agree that the Future Internet should be dependable, scalable, manageable, sustainable, and flexible in order to integrate new services yet unknown. The main challenge is to develop an Internet architecture that has all these attributes. Will it be possible to protect users from spam and malicious code, yet retain the openness of the Internet? How can privacy and accountability be reconciled? Can the Internet be open for a multitude of new services while at the same time ensuring high reliability?
So far, the experts are still struggling to comprehend the scope of the challenges. The right approach for addressing these challenges is even more unclear yet.
Clean slate versus evolution
How the Internet should be brought into shape is currently the subject of a controversial discussion among experts. The two main approaches to engineering the development of the Internet are the clean slate design and the incremental evolution. The proponents of the clean slate design want to re-design the Internet from scratch and replace the current patchwork with a new Internet architecture. Advocates of the incremental evolution approach consider the clean-slate approach as not feasible and compare it to replacing the engines of a jet airliner in mid-flight. Instead, they suggest incremental improvements, addressing one challenge at a time.
European and global initiatives
Plenty of research will be needed to solve all the challenges related to the Future Internet. This time, Europe aims to have a bigger say in the directions of the Future Internet than it had in the first edition. The European Commission has already committed several hundred million euros to collaborative research projects in the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7). In addition, a comparable level of research funding for Future Internet research is distributed by European countries through programmes like Celtic, the Eureka Cluster dedicated to telecommunications, and through national programmes.
However, competition for defining the Future Internet outside of Europe is strong, and, thus, Europe needs to do more, if it wants to achieve a strong position in the further development of the Internet. Future Internet activities are taking place in the United States, where the research initiatives FIND (Future Internet Design) and GENI (Global Environment for Network Innovations) have been launched. In Asia, the Photonic Internet Forum in Japan and the Future Internet Forum in Korea are noteworthy.
In addition, there are the international activities of the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and the Internet Research Task Force (IRTF). European researchers have continuously contributed to the work of both IRTF and IETF. However, critical voices say that these organisations have not significantly advanced the basic architecture of the Internet in over 15 years.
In view of initiatives from other regions and the lack of innovative drive at the relevant international bodies, Europe is under pressure to act in a more coherent and determined way to ensure that European research results on the Future Internet will have a global impact.
This includes increasing European funding for Internet-related work and moving faster in establishing European views on the Future Internet. Otherwise, the European communications industry will miss the chance to be competitive on the global market. If Europe fails to achieve a common view on the future networked society, and the future network at the core of it, Europe will be forced to adopt concepts suitable for other regions of the world, whose requirements are very different from those in Europe.
The recent proposal by the European Commission to start a European Future Internet Assembly can be regarded as a first step towards building a common European view. The success of ensuing steps will depend on how closely and creatively European industry, academia, and funding bodies will work together to develop a vision of the future networked society and the future network enabling this society. In this context, ideas are emerging for creating a European Future Internet Joint Technology Initiative or a European Future Internet Forum, or both.
Whatever steps Europe will take, the race for defining the Future Internet has started, and its outcome will have a deep impact on society in the next decades.
Further information is available on the European Future Internet Portal at http://www.future-internet.eu
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