Planting the seeds for tomorrow's Internet, a group of researchers announced today that they've launched a new virtual Internet research laboratory. The PlanetLab collaboration consists of researchers from 60 universities in 16 countries as well as from computer giants Intel and Hewlett-Packard. The new partnership aims to build a proving ground for applications that could enable the Internet to monitor itself for viruses and worms, recall Web pages long after they've disappeared, and develop other new powers.
Today's Internet is little more than a common language, or protocol, that allows computer users to quickly send each other information. When someone clicks on a Web page, computer software in the sender's machine sends out a stream of data, which is later broken into a series of data packets. These are transmitted via a network of machines called "routers" to the recipient's computer, where software reassembles it into a Web page. That process makes the Internet available to anyone with a computer, a modem, a phone line, and a standard software package. That simplicity proved so successful that the number of Internet users surged from about 16 million in December 1995 to more than 600 million in September 2002.
But according to Larry Peterson, an Internet researcher at Princeton University and head of PlanetLab, the Internet's vastness now stymies most efforts at innovation. Researchers looking to create novel applications have no way to test them in an environment that is both easily monitored and big enough to give real-world results.
Last year Peterson and others started a grassroots effort to create a new research testbed. Their idea was to link computers into an "overlay" network using current Internet connections, much as the Internet itself started as an overlay on top of the telephone network. Each computer in the new network will contain software that enables it to share storage and processing power with other computers in the network. Participating research teams will then receive a "slice" of the network's time and resources to run their application. All the linked computers will be used both to run the applications and to monitor the network itself. In 2 years, Peterson says he expects the network to contain about 1000 machines around the globe.
"No one has tried something at that scale before," says Robert Kahn, president and CEO of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives in Reston, Virginia, who co-wrote some of the original computer protocols that led to the development of the Internet.