Thinking Tech

Our Internet is breaking down, here's the path to a new one

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As the Internet buckles under the pressures of age and an enormous explosion of content and traffic, researchers are hard at work trying to build a new, more improved version.

The Internet is breaking down. And we'll need something new. After all, our "information superhighway" requires maintenance just like real roads do. And now it's showing its age, buckling under the pressure of a content and traffic explosion. We take this technology for granted, yet someone has to tend to it. Enter Internet2, a consortium of experts from research and education communities and the U.S. government, and the Energy Sciences Network (ESNet), a network linking scientists at national laboratories and research institutions, who collaborate on some of the world's most important scientific challenges like energy, climate science, and the origins of the universe. These two groups are now experimenting with new ways to improve the Internet.

But there is a problem. They need a platform upon which to work, something that mirrors reality. Imagine the uproar if construction occurred on our Internet, testing security, experimenting with new hardware. Just like dreaded construction on actual highways, people would lose their mind in traffic delays and detours. It'd be a mess. But there's a solution in the works. The groups are building experimental networks on top of dormant channels called "dark fiber." And what they plan to test may turn out to be as disruptive to our lives and society as the first version of the Internet.

Right now they are working on a prototype network that transfers data at 100 gigabits per second. Imagine downloading the entire first season of Game of Thrones in HD, in one second. It's worth mentioning of course that the power of World Wide Web is due to the Internet. And the three technological advances that have made the Web explode and change our culture dramatically are: data manipulation, data storage and data transmission. It's the latter one that Internet2 and ESNet are dealing with right now. One hundred gigabits per second is magically fast, but we ain't seen nothing yet, as newer hardware and better networks are built, we must brace ourselves with another massive change in information delivery.

Dark fiber is actually fiber-optic cables that have been abandoned since the dot-com bust of the early 2000s. Internet2 and ESNet have leased fiber for the next 20 years.

Security research is an area they are particularly interested in. At speeds of 100 Gbps it's tough to inspect for suspicious activity, so they are keen to experiment with what could happen should spammers and hackers have access to very high bandwidth, and start developing methods of defense.

Robert Vietzke, Internet2's director of network services, told MIT's TechnologyReview that the dark fiber test bed will be complete by the end of this year:
It's not clear exactly what will come out of access to the networks. "I don't think you could have imagined that the bandwidth-rich environment [typically available at universities and research centers] could have transformed global politics, commerce, and economics as much as it has in recent years," Vietzke says. He points not only to scientific advances but to dorm-room inventions such as Facebook and Napster. There's every reason, he says, to expect the next generation of the Internet to be just as disruptive.

The technological limits of the information revolution are not anywhere close to being reached. The exponentially increasing capability (or decreasing cost due to Moore's Law) of our current technology will continue for perhaps another five, maybe 10 years. Of course nanotechnologies and quantum phenomena have yet to prove their magic in this second coming of connectedness. Already carbon nanotubes can hold digital data for a billion years. That's basically forever.

The thing to remember the Internet is not nearly done, nor static. Technology is not even in the ballpark of its theoretical physical limits. Get ready.

[via MIT TechnologyReview]

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Christie Nicholson

Contributing Writer

Christie Nicholson produces and hosts Scientific American's podcasts 60-Second Mind and 60-Second Science and is an on-air contributor for Slate, Babelgum, Scientific American, Discovery Channel and Science Channel. She has spoken at MIT/Stanford VLAB, SXSW Interactive, the National Science Foundation, the National Research Council, the Space Studies Board and Brookhaven National Laboratory. She holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and Dalhousie University in Canada. She is based in New York. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure