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The last time the architecture of the Internet was updated, George H.W. Bush was president and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles had just starred in their first movie.
Now Colorado State University researchers are working with several universities to fix some of the vexing problems that plague today’s Internet architecture, which has remained essentially unchanged since it became publicly available in 1991.
The CSU team, led by computer science Professor Christos Papadopoulos, is designing and building a new Internet architecture that does away with IP addresses – numeric identifiers assigned to every machine connected to the Internet – and uses new cryptographic techniques to secure and protect data.
Such a new architecture could solve problems big and small, including “slashdotting” – what happens when a large number of users visit a high-profile website, click on a link to a smaller site that in turn crashes under the weight of its sudden popularity.
That project is one of three being funded by the National Science Foundation to explore new Internet architectures for the future.
“NSF is really interested in exploring new Internet architectures that would make the network more resilient and secure,” Papadopoulos said.
Papadopoulos received a second NSF grant to work with CSU climate scientists to test the new architecture and its ability to share and protect large, complex data sets with researchers in other parts of the world.
“Climate scientists have a huge amount of data that needs to be shared and managed,” he said.
With the current IP system, when Internet users find something they want to view on a website, such as a story on the New York Times, they click on it. Their browser then contacts the host site’s web server and “asks” for permission to view the information. It all occurs in a matter of milliseconds and the average user never sees what is happening.
But there are many things that can – and do – go wrong in this complex process of translating site names to IP addresses.
The website might be down, making information unavailable. The web server might crash, making it impossible to reach the information. Or there could be a fault in the network that prevents request packets from reaching the original web server.
Right now when there is a problem with the network or the New York Times’ servers, there is no way to access the story you want – even though it could be sitting on thousands of other machines that acquired it before the glitches started.
This architecture worked well in 1995 when fewer than 40 million people used the Internet.
Today, more than 2 billion people do.
The New Architecture Papadopoulos and his team are building eschews IP addresses in favor of using the actual name of the content users want.
So, if a user’s browser wants the front page of the New York Times, it may ask the network for something like www.nytimes.com/frontPage, rather than machines having to go through the process of finding the IP address for the newspaper’s server and then asking for the front page.
Since the network knows what a user is looking for, it may find better ways to get it than going all the way to the original server, which may be on another continent. It may grab the page from the person sitting next to you who happens to be reading the same page, for example. And since the network knows content by name, it can also store or “cache” popular content accessed by its users. So as users ask for the latest YouTube video that has just gone viral, it becomes easier for everyone to access.
“You tell the network what you want rather where to go to get it,” said Papadopoulos. “The network figures out where it is.”
The CSU team has built two test beds to help with the development and evaluation of the new architecture. One is shared and maintained by project participants at several other universities and is open to anyone who wants to experiment.
The second smaller – but higher capacity – test bed is dedicated to climate scientists who routinely transfer terabytes of data.
“The climate folks are really excited about the new architecture,” said Papadopoulos. “It allows them to discover and access their data much more easily, without the large complex software that they use today.”