Today we use the Internet in ways that require real-time performance, whether that is watching streaming video or making phone calls. At the same time, we’re generating much more data, so having networks that just look at bits and bytes is no longer sufficient. The network has to become more aware of the information it’s carrying so it can better prioritize delivery and operate more efficiently.
How do you make a network more aware of the information it’s carrying?
There are different approaches. Today, if you want to know more about the data crossing a network—for example to intercept computer viruses—then you use software to peek into the data packet, something called deep-packet inspection. Think of a physical letter you send through the normal postal service wrapped in an envelope with an address on it. The postal service doesn’t care what the letter says, it’s only interested in the address. This is how the Internet functions today with regard to data. With deep-packet inspection, software tells the network to open the data envelope and read at least part of what’s inside. [If the data contains a virus, the inspection tool may route that data to a quarantine area to keep it from infecting computers connecting to that network.] However, you can get only a limited amount of information about the data this way, and it requires a lot of processing power. Plus, if the data inside the packet is encrypted, deep-packet inspection won’t work.
A better option would be to tag data and give the network instructions for handling different types of data. There might be a policy that states a video stream should get priority over an e-mail, although you don’t have to reveal exactly what’s in that video stream or e-mail. The network simply takes these data tags into account when making routing decisions.
Even if a smarter Net can move data around more intelligently, content is growing exponentially. How do you reduce the amount of traffic a network needs to handle?
Our smartphones, computers and other gadgets generate a lot of raw data that we then send to data centers for processing and storage. This will not scale in the future. Rather, we might move to a model where decisions are made about data before it is placed on the network. For example, if you have a security camera at an airport, you would program the camera or a small computer server controlling multiple cameras to perform facial recognition locally, based on a database stored in a camera or server. [Instead of bottlenecking the network with a stream of images, the camera would communicate with the network only when it finds a suspect. That way it sends an alert message or maybe a single digital image when needed.]
Would this decentralization mean the end of “the cloud”?
No, it’s a different way of organizing the cloud. Today the cloud is made up of big, centralized data centers. That’s fine for certain functions, such as when you need to aggregate data on a global scale. In the future our devices, whether it’s a smartphone or a television set-top box, will play a larger role in the cloud. [In the case of a set-top box, the box would gather data about a viewer’s preferences, analyze that data right there in the living room and the send specific content recommendations back to the cable provider, rather than a stream of raw data.]
How does information networking address privacy concerns?
At the moment privacy is binary—you either keep your privacy or you have to give it up almost entirely to obtain certain personalized services, such as music recommendations or online coupons. There has to be something in-between that puts the user in control of their information.
The biggest problem is that it has to be simple for the user. Look at how complicated it is to manage your privacy on social networks. You end up having your photos in the photo stream of people you don’t even know. There should be the digital equivalent of a knob that lets you trade off privacy with personalization. The more I reveal about myself, the more personalized the services I receive. But I can also dial it back—if I’m willing to provide less detailed information, I can still receive some personalized, albeit less-targeted, offers.