NETWORK OF NETWORKS: This image depicts a partial map of the Internet based on data from January 15, 2005. Each line is drawn between two nodes, representing two IP addresses. Image: Courtesy of The Opte Project
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In 2009 singer Susan Boyle's extremely popular YouTube video of the Les Miserables song "I Dreamed a Dream" racked up 140 million hits in just four days, the equivalent of a digital tsunami that blasted the Internet with gale-force winds. Given that the Internet was created more than four decades ago primarily as a communications network, few content providers other than Google could have successfully managed the storm of requests coming in for access to that video without crashing.
The Internet was designed for "computers to make phone calls to other computers, and that's a really inefficient way of distributing content," Van Jacobson, a former research fellow at Palo Alto Research Center (PARC), said in a 2011 video interview on the company’s Web site. YouTube successfully handled the inundation of requests for Boyle's video "because they're a big, distributed content source spread out all over the planet, so they wouldn't get the kind of traffic concentration that would prevent something from working. Basically, Google's the only place that can do that."
The Susan Boyle YouTube phenomenon punctuated Jacobson's contention, shared by many computer scientists worldwide, that the Internet is desperately in need of a makeover to transform it from a network that emphasizes where data is located to one that focuses more on the nature of the data itself.
From his arrival at the Xerox subsidiary Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) in 2006 until his departure in October, Jacobson led the organization's Project CCNx effort to overcome the current Internet architecture's shortcomings as a media distribution platform. "The goal of content-centric networking is to get out of this phone-call world and instead ask the network for what you want," says Jacobson, who in the 1980s helped improve TCP/IP (Transfer Control Protocol/Internet Protocol), the protocol that the Internet uses to handle network congestion. Jacobson is still involved in the Named Data Networking (NDN) Project, an 11-university research program funded under the National Science Foundation’s Future Internet Architectures Project.
Since its inception as a system of interconnected computer networks in the late 1960s and early '70s the Internet has grown into a global electronic backbone for commerce, entertainment, finance, health care and nearly every other facet of life. In addition, the emergence of cloud computing, social networks and the mobile Web have turned the Internet into a distributed system for posting and accessing information from a variety of devices in ways that existing Internet protocols were not designed to accommodate. The location of the data in question—expressed by its IP address—has become less relevant because that data can reside on several different servers (known colloquially as "the cloud") and be stored in short-term cache memory at various locations throughout a network.
Of course, the Internet still functions quite well despite the changing ways in which we use it, but this situation only exists because the basic model for enabling communication between source and destination addresses has been heavily modified over time, a team of researchers noted in the July issue of IEEE Communications Magazine (pdf).
Focusing the Internet's routing infrastructure on content rather than addresses would better accommodate today's speed and security needs. "The interesting thing about allowing routers to use bits in the packets that are not addresses [is] that you can configure a network or network of networks around something other than formal address structures," says Vint Cerf, the Internet pioneer who co-developed TCP/IP and now serves as Google's chief Internet evangelist. In this scenario, content-centric identifiers would tell the routers to forward a particular packet in several directions because there are multiple parties on the Net that are interested in seeing that content, he adds.
There is no shortage of research underway to improve the Internet’s performance and security mechanisms. Some projects aim to boost network speeds or reroute data to meet the growing demands of bandwidth-hogging multimedia content. Others focus on better protecting Net-connected computers, servers and other devices from malicious software and other digital threats. An emerging area of research that includes Project CCNx is information-centric networking (ICN), which seeks to cover all of these bases, and then some.