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Do we need a replacement Internet?


By Scott Bradner, Network World, 04/16/07


Much has been written of late in Network World and elsewhere about “clean slate” approaches to rebuilding the Internet.


The Associated Press recently published a story with the provocative title “Researchers Explore Scrapping Internet.” The article starts out confusing a research approach with a potential result, but does come back to reality by the end. Even if it had not, this would have not been the first time that replacing the Internet was seen as the logical thing to do, at least by people wearing the blinders of true belief or challenged logical thinking.


The AP article focuses on the National Science Foundation’s Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) research effort. GENI is taking a “clean slate” approach to networking research, in which one thinks through solutions to problems without being constrained by what exists today. This is a great way to do research, but it’s often not all that great a way to do product development. To be successful, new products generally have to provide a benefit greater than the cost of purchasing and installing them.


Today’s Internet has a lot of problems — predictability, security, the need for a rational business model, for example — that would be good to fix. There is a lot of Internet out there, however, and it is working well enough to be very useful. There would have to be a very good reason to scrap and replace it, and it does not seem that the developments spawned by GENI are likely to be enough to punt the Internet in any large-scale way (although many of the developments may provide enough benefit to cause an incremental replacement of some key Internet functions).


Who was claiming the Internet was going to be replaced was about the only thing that differentiated the recent AP report. In this case, the “who” was a reporter and the researchers interviewed for a story. In most previous cases, the “who” has been someone tied to a phone company or a phone company supplier.


The first time I heard something like this was in the pre-Web Internet days in the mid-1990s, when some of the phone companies were predicting that ISDN would replace all the silliness of ISPs and enterprise networks. About the same time, others in the phone business were among the many folks — including much of the press — riding the ATM bandwagon.


I recall many times when I was belittled for doubting the vision of ATM as the technology that was going to replace all existing technology. A few years later, the song and some of the telco singers were the same, but the technology was the 3G cellular wireless that also was going to replace enterprise networks and ISPs. Lately, some of the telco people have been saying the same about the International Telecommunication Union’s telecommunications standards division’s Next Generation Network project, at least for replacing ISPs.


As the folks from the telephone companies realize all too well — because it’s happening to their own — sometimes infrastructures do get replaced. It takes a long time, however, and the new technology has to provide useful new services. At this point, the Internet of old (that is, the one we still have today) works too often to drive quick replacement, and none of the new applications I’ve seen touted for a new Internet cannot be retrofitted to the one we already have.


So, beware salesmen or phone company people selling replacement instead of improvement. Keep a good grip on your wallet.


Disclaimer: The job of Harvard’s development people is to loosen wallet grips, but I did not ask them or anyone else at the university their opinion on replacing the 'Net. So the above nonbelief is mine alone.


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