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Internet architecture: how distant are the elephants?


By Scott Bradner


In 1992 MIT researcher and the original Internet Architect Dave Clark exhorted the IETF to deal with "distant elephants" such as security and addressing and their impact on the Internet.  He reprised the same talk more than 10 years later during the IETF's 20th anniversary meeting in Dallas, maybe to remind us that elephants don't always stay away.  Now Dave and others are using our tax dollars to seriously explore visions of how a new Internet should work.


Dave's original 1992 talk ("A Cloudy Crystal Ball - Visions of the Future" - page 539 in has aged rather well.  About the only elephant he talks about that turned out to be vaporware is ATM and people turned out to be more willing to connect to a spam-filled and insecure Internet than Dave thought they might be.  But overall the talk is as relevant today as it was in 1992 and Dave is still singing much the same tune today.


Dave's current work is explored in a special report titled "The Internet Is Broken" in MIT's "Technology Review."  (  DonŐt be put off by Technology Review's over hyped teaser for the report "The Net's basic flaws cost firms billions, impede innovation, and threaten national security. It's time for a clean-slate app[roach]."  The report itself is better than the teaser. 


In the report, and live, Dave is pessimistic about the Internet of today.  He worries that "[w]e might just be at the point where the utility of the Internet stalls -- and perhaps turns downward."  Like he was in 1992 when he said "lack of security means the END OF LIFE AS WE KNOW IT!!" Dave is still focused on the lack of security functions within the Internet itself.  This lack means that security is the responsibility of the end user, someone who is unlikely to be a security expert.  Security is not the only issue but is painted as the key one.   Dave's four goals for a new Internet architecture are:

o a basic security architecture including authentication of Internet users

o enable ISPs to "offer advanced services without compromising their businesses"

o to enable devises of all sizes to connect to the Internet

o make network management easier and more resilient


The US National Science Foundation is putting some of our tax money behind research into this area.  They have created the "Global Environment for Networking Innovations" (GENI) initiative" to explore new networking capabilities that will advance science and stimulate innovation and economic growth." (  In the past NSF-sponsored research was key to the development of today's Internet and I hope that the research to be done under the GENI Initiative will enable a better, safer, more economically viable and more manageable Internet of tomorrow.


The NSF's GENI Initiative is not the only game when it comes to designing an Internet for tomorrow.  The International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has been working on a "Next Generation Network Standards Initiative (NGN-GSI) ( for the last few years.  The ITU's goals for their NGN sound quite a bit like Dave's but the players are quite different.  GENI works with network researchers and the NGN is mostly an effort of the telephone industry.


Both the NSF's GENI and the ITU's NGN are envisioned by some players as new infrastructures running in parallel to today's Internet.  This reminds me of the dream fans of ATM once had.  My mid-year prediction is that the Internet that you will be using 10 years from now will have technologies that came from both of these initiatives but that the Internet of tomorrow will be closer to today's Internet than either of the initiatives expect.


disclaimer: There are lot of educational infrastructures that run in parallel to Harvard -- its up to you to judge the relative merits -- but the above worry about parallelism is my own.