A Bold New Internet
Raytheon leads redesign of a net drowning in data
High school students gaze into a microscope, panning and zooming to watch microbes whirl inside a drop of water. The students are in Chattanooga and the microscope is in California, but what's truly novel is the sleek new way the Internet is delivering the torrent of high-resolution images.
What makes it possible for the students to work the controls and see the slide from 2,000 miles away is something called GENI, or the Global Environment for Network Innovations. Raytheon BBN Technologies leads the National Science Foundation-funded project, a years-in-the-making effort by researchers around the world to bring the Internet's decades-old design up to speed with the data-laden demands of new technology.
“The Internet was designed 40 years ago,” said Mark Berman, a Raytheon BBN Technologies executive and the head of the project. “How would we design it now, given what we know today?”
GENI's powers go far beyond allowing students to use a microscope from across the country. Its ultra-fast delivery of data can also enable meteorologists to predict storms on shorter notice and even help first responders examine an emergency scene while still en route.
Regular conferences bring together hundreds of university researchers and others who have been experimenting with the futuristic Internet framework, said Erwin Gianchandani, deputy division director for computer and network systems at the National Science Foundation’s computer and information science engineering directorate.
“People get together, they roll up their sleeves, and they say, 'Here’s where we’re going and how we get there,'” Gianchandani said.
Rethinking the rules
GENI has been under way for eight years, with contributions from some of the world’s foremost computer experts, but its basic principle is simple: It seeks faster and more efficient ways for data to move. Researchers are seeking alternatives to the fundamental rules that govern how data goes from one place to another, such as Transmission Control Protocol/Internet Protocol, or TCP/IP.
Under that system, which BBN Technologies helped to develop, a computer divides information into bursts and sends it into a network to be re-assembled at the other end. GENI, meanwhile, removes inefficiencies through techniques such as stashing clouds of certain data at various places in the pipeline.
“There are a lot of really clever things you can do to make things more efficient if you put just a little bit of storage and computation in different places,” Berman said. “Now instead of shipping many, many copies of very, very popular information to some source, you pre-stage it in different places and deliver it locally.”
That's already happening to an extent, but GENI would open the technique to smaller companies, Berman said.
"One change that GENI technology brings about is that in the next Internet, a new company doesn't need to be a big player to offer a similar service, because they can use shared infrastructure," he said.
GENI's goal, Gianchandani said, was to keep the everyday Internet intact while creating a separate environment for academics and other experts to devise and experiment with new and better ways to make it work.
“The Internet has come a long way,” Gianchandani said, “and it is an economic driver for this nation and the world, but we need to be constantly innovating.”
The technology takes hold
What GENI can bring the world ranges from simple conveniences – losing the buffering bar when you stream a movie – to significant improvements in medicine and emergency response, Berman said.
"You can do most or all of these things with the current Internet. It just takes more work to do it and makes less efficient use of resources," Berman said. "GENI lets researchers and service providers experiment with and develop these capabilities more rapidly and efficiently."
Oncologists, for example, could enter information from a patient’s genome and compare it quickly to cases around the world to determine the best course of treatment. Paramedics could see live drone video of an accident scene as they race to respond to it.
Other applications include weather forecasting – GENI can enable faster processing of data from weather radar in remote locations to spot far-away storms sooner – and even fitness; one program in particular can record video of an exercise routine and use image-processing algorithms to analyze the user’s technique in real time.
These tools are no longer theoretical – they’re actually happening. At STEM School Chattanooga, students can punch up a live feed from a lab at the University of Southern California and see a slide under a research-grade microscope, with insight and commentary from professional microbiologists.
“The Internet is already starting to look a lot more like the GENI vision,” Berman said.