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Scrambling the Equations: Potential Trends in Networking

by Andy Oram, O'Reilly editor and author

I believe that changes in digital networking over the next few years will be more radical than a simple, linear evolution, but less radical than a paradigm shift. The basic variables we've been trained to manipulate--the issues of security, bandwidth, availability, and so on--will stay the same, which is why there won't be a paradigm shift for a while. However, the weights we've been assigning to these variables are about to change. We'll have to throw out our current equations and rearrange the variables into new ones.

The peer-to-peer movement confirms my evaluation. A year ago, a lot of people thought peer-to-peer was new. But anyone who seriously and rigorously investigated the issues it raised--such as the security, bandwidth, and availability I just mentioned--found that these issues have been around for along time. The cutting-edge research used by P2P technologies for advanced areas like pseudonymity and distributed-identification systems was going on years before the term "P2P" was invented.

I recently had a chance to consider some potential trends in networking while attending a workshop called Collaborative Computing in Higher Education: Peer-to-Peer and Beyond, where I delivered the keynote speech. While most of the suggestions in this article are my own, I'll mention insights that I gleaned from various speeches. I have also put up a short Weblog about the conference, and the text of my keynote speech.

Note that the following are only potential trends. While I think it would be logical for them to emerge, and sometimes desirable, I have scant confidence in my role as prophet. Interventions by any number of powerful actors could shove events in a different direction.

A New Generation of Networked Filesystems

Most people thought of Napster, Freenet, and Gnutella as just systems for swapping files. But they herald a new approach to distributed filesystems whose commercial applications are already appearing. Over the next few years, you could well find your company migrating away from familiar, distributed filesystems like NSF or Microsoft domains and toward a new generation that is far superior in robustness and flexibility.

The advances found in the new, networked filesystems include:

  • Use of previously wasted space on organizations' PCs instead of a central server.

  • Encryption, which permits files to be stored on arbitrary computers without danger of snooping or tampering. As a side benefit, encryption supports sophisticated access controls.

  • Replication, because people turn off their PCs. Replication also promotes locality of access.

  • Breaking up files, so that multiple pieces can be downloaded simultaneously for faster access.

  • Indexing and naming that are divorced from location.

Certainly, there are advantages to the current systems. Byte for byte, central storage is cheaper. For small documents, at least, retrieval will be faster without the rigmarole of indexing. The newer systems will be appropriate for large organizations and those with worldwide operations. The latter type of organization benefits from locality of access and makes better use of replication because "the sun never sets" on such organizations. (Somebody's PC will always be turned on.)

Devices will Support Scripting

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Current predictions about computing include expectations that people will attach devices to their appliances, their clothing, and even (God forbid) their skin. At the peer-to-peer workshop, Intel scientist David Barkai showed an interesting figure positing an "extended Internet" of the future that contains millions of standard computers, hundreds of millions of devices, and billions of sensors.

If devices and sensors are to be widely useful, people will need fine control. Few will be satisfied with a device that provides only a manufacturer's rigid notion of what's appropriate.

Thus, the explosion of devices will also spur a renaissance of scripting languages. Enthusiasts will either port existing languages to the devices (a task that can be made easier by running a standard operating system on the devices) or--if Perl seems a bit bloated for a thermometer--new languages will be developed.

Security Will Focus on the Individual System More Than the Network

Though peer-to-peer systems have not led to security breaches yet (I'm not counting the kinds of Trojan horses that can be downloaded in P2P executables, as with any other program), they legitimately raise concerns. If we are granting more importance to the individual end user, it is natural to harden that end user's computer. Furthermore, the trend toward collaboration involves people in many different groups on different networks, the kind of environment for which Groove, for instance, was designed.

You may work more closely with a fellow professional at one of your suppliers, vendors, or at a company within your industry than with your own accounting department. You may even trust this external collaborator more than your own accounting department. (I don't mean to unfairly pick on accountants here; most are scrupulously honest.) Meanwhile, two speakers at the peer-to-peer conference (David Nicol and David Barkai) mentioned internal fraud as a primary source of security hazards. A firewall can't protect you against crooked coworkers.

Thus, modern business will move toward setting up small spaces for people who really need to know particular things. Firewalls will still be important for standard spoofing attacks, but they won't be as central to security plans as before.

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