Your Gadgets Are Slowly Breaking the Internet

Your Gadgets Are Slowly Breaking the Internet

The Internet isn’t robust enough for the ongoing explosion of connected devices. Now labs around the country are scrambling for solutions.
By David Talbot
January 9, 2013

Behind all the dazzling mobile-ready electronics products on display at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas this week is a looming problem: how to make the networks that support all these wireless devices function robustly and efficiently.

With less fanfare than you’d see in Vegas, potential solutions are arising in labs in Pittsburgh, Los Angeles, and New Brunswick, New Jersey. The grand challenge is to overhaul the Internet to better serve an expected flood of 15 billion network-connected devices by 2015—many of them mobile—up from five billion today, according to Intel estimates.

The Internet was designed in the 1960s to dispatch data to fixed addresses of static PCs connected to a single network, but today it connects a riot of diverse gadgets that can zip from place to place and connect to many different networks.

As the underlying networks have been reworked to make way for new technologies, some serious inefficiencies and security problems have arisen (see “The Internet is Broken”). “Nobody really expects the network to crash when you add one more device,” says Peter Steenkiste, computer scientist at Carnegie Mellon University. “But I do have a sense this is more of a creeping problem of complexity.”

Over the past year, fundamentally new network designs have taken shape and are being tested at universities around the United States under the National Science Foundation’s Future Internet Architecture Program, launched in 2010. One key idea is that users should be able to obtain data from the nearest location—not seek it from some specific data center at a fixed address.

“Today I have on my desk a smartphone, a tablet, and a Mac computer.  To move data between them, the request goes all the way to the cloud—God knows where that is—so it can come back here to another device that is two feet away,” says Lixia Zhang, a computer scientist at the University of California, Los Angeles. “That is wrong, it is simply wrong.”

Things would work quite differently under the Named Data Networking (NDN) project that Zhang heads. Under NDN, users request desired data by their names, instead of the IP address where they can be found. Using data names could, among other things, allow easy sharing of data directly between devices. “In the end, I think we can improve the speed, throughput and overall efficiency. Today you have many data centers that can have thousands of people asking for same piece of data.  An NDN network just find the nearest copy of that data,” says Zhang.  “Conceptually this is pretty simple, but it is really a revolution.”



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