Internet, Act II

The Next Generation Internet (NGI) promises to be everything that today's Internet is not. It will be fast, secure and reliable. It will be scalable for very large networks. And it will include wireless access for mobile devices such as handheld computers and cellular phones.

But to get there, a number of hurdles must be cleared, one of the highest being the fact that, like phone numbers in a densely populated area, the number of IP addresses under the current 32-bit Internet Protocol version 4 is quickly running out. The solution is IP version 6 (IPv6), which is a 128-bit protocol. Under IPv6, there will be sufficient addresses for every imaginable application, and it will even allow the gratuitous use of addresses for predicted applications such as refrigerators that are connected to the Internet.

IPv6 is being tested by users of Internet2, a network set up to connect universities and government agencies, just like the original Internet. Internet2 "began as a way to develop and deploy technologies that weren't possible on the regular Internet," said Greg Wood, director of communications for the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development, the Internet2 consortium.

Internet2 users will iron out any operational bugs in IPv6 so that it will be a tested and proven protocol before moving to the Internet. "IPv6 is a pretty well-baked technology," Wood said. Internet2 users are working out such details as how to deploy large-scale directory services and how to find and connect to other users for videoconferencing.

The proliferation of new applications and services that will result from the widespread adoption of IPv6, such as networked refrigerators, is expected to transform the Internet, resulting in the NGI.

"The NGI is the networks, hardware, software and services that will make possible a new generation of applications over the Internet," said Mike Nelson, IBM Corp.'s director of Internet technology and strategy. "More speed is a prerequisite, but it is not the most important thing about the NGI."

IBM has identified seven attributes of the NGI that will set it apart from today's Internet. The NGI should be:

Fast. Always on. Everywhere. Intelligent. Natural. Easy to use. Trusted. The NGI will feature local connections that range from 1 megabyte/second to 10 mega-bytes/second, and the backbone will jump to 5 gigabytes/second to 10 gigabytes/second, Nelson predicts. Although new hardware and protocols will enable such rapid transfers of data, an important shift will be toward the replication of servers, so that data doesn't have to travel as far, he said.

"You often have to go thousands of kilometers to get data today," Nelson said. "It is better to have hundreds of replicas that are cached a few tens of kilometers from users."

Such replication of data, along with the increase in file sizes as the result of IP telephony, videoconferencing and video on demand, will contribute to an explosion in the amount of data on servers accessible by the NGI. According to IBM Research's Global Technology Outlook, the data on the Internet will grow from about one petabyte today (equivalent to 1,024 terabytes) to one zettabyte by 2010 — a millionfold increase.

Another change will be in the reliability of the network. Although today's Internet is fairly reliable, the NGI will have the reliability of an analog telephone network: 99.999 percent availability. And all of the devices attached to the NGI will be connected constantly, rather than connecting periodically through dial-up connections.

Voice over IP is expected to be one of the biggest applications of the NGI, making reliability a critical issue. Already, the Office of the Inspector General for the U.S. Postal Service has started using voice over IP, after piloting the service last year. Now, the IG's office incurs no long-distance telephone charges between its offices that are using the service, serving as an example of the potential cost savings from NGI applications, said Bob Duffy, operations manager for the IG's office.

"There are quite a few federal agencies building out the infrastructure" for voice over IP, said Chris Johnson, senior systems engineering manager for Cisco Systems Inc.'s federal organization.

A problem with IP telephony has been imperfect call quality because of dropped packets and delays in delivering voice data, said Todd Hanson, principal analyst with Gartner Group Inc. in San Jose, Calif. "The human ear is real finicky," he said. "With delays beyond 5 milliseconds, it becomes uncomfortable to have a conversation."

The NGI will also benefit from greater intelligence. Does that mean we should worry about the possibility of the Internet developing a mind of its own and attempting to take over the world, as in apocalyptic movies? No, but it does mean the Internet will know more about the information it has and where it is located, making it easier for users to sift through that zettabyte of data.

To make the NGI easier to use, newer applications and operating systems should automatically identify when components such as plug-ins are needed and then retrieve them and load them with more reliability than there is today, so that users need not be network engineers.

Finally, the NGI will be more trusted than today's Internet, thanks to improved security features that have been built into IPv6. For example, the authentication header in IPv6 allows organizations to use an authentication technique of their choosing to ensure the integrity of the data packets they send via the Internet. That can eliminate a significant class of network attacks, including host-masquerading attacks.

Although plans for the NGI may sound ambitious, all of the know-how is already in place. "The good news is that we have the technology to do this," Nelson said. "The bad news is that we haven't implemented it, or if we have, there are five different versions of it."

When the NGI arrives, it won't be like the grand opening of a new shopping center. Instead, bits and pieces of the NGI will gradually slide into place in the regular Internet.

"This is not a revolution, it is an evolution," Nelson said.

The hotly debated question is when most of those technologies will be in place and ready to use. It seems certain that the evolution will take place over the next three to five years.

"Within the next five years, the NGI will be on the desktop of almost every federal employee," Nelson said. "Not every component may be in place, but the core will be in place. We can say that concretely. The benefits are too huge for it not to happen."

Federal preparedness for the transition would be improved if agencies started requiring IPv6 readiness and compatibility in all new products and services they buy, Johnson said.

"The government should specify IPv6 as a future capability in requests for proposals so they have a migration path down the road," he said.

Carney is a freelance writer based in Herndon, Va.


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