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Summary:

Today’s internet is based on client devices such as PCs or smartphones talking to centralized servers to get their data. If an EU-funded project called Pursuit takes flight, the future could be a whole lot more distributed.

networking abstract
photo: Thinkstock

Researchers at one of the world’s oldest universities, Cambridge, have come up with a prototype for a possible future internet infrastructure that does away with the need for servers. This could help solve the network capacity problems that arise out of the profusion of bulky online content such as video.

The way the internet currently works, content is mostly delivered to client devices such as PCs and smartphones from powerful computers called servers, which are generally housed in data centers. This represents a centralization of computing power and storage that some argue is becoming outdated, what with the beefy processors and (sometimes) capacious storage devices we carry around in our pockets these days.

The Cambridge University prototype would represent a dramatic revamp of that way of doing things. Part of a wider EU-funded project called Pursuit, the putative protocol operates more like the popular filesharing mechanism BitTorrent, in that users share information directly with one another, rather than through a server. Simplistically put, Person B might receive content from Person A’s device, then become a source for that data so Person C could then download it, and so on.

Fragments of the same data might be replicated all over the place, in order to make re-assembly as quick and efficient as possible. So, for example, if you want to watch a TV show online, you would get its fragments from people nearby who have already downloaded and watched it, rather than from the provider’s server or content delivery network.

Pursuit internet model

What is particularly interesting about the Pursuit system is the way in which it would identify content. Instead of using web addresses as is currently the norm, the data would be “fingerprinted” to show the authenticity of its source. The Pursuit team has already shown proof-of-concept applications that can find content in this way.

I’ve actually been having quite a few discussions with people in the industry about this sort of idea, ever since the Edward Snowden revelations demonstrated how the centralization of data in the cloud can allow greater control over users. And one major issue that has been raised during these chats is that of the shift to mobile — this makes computing more ubiquitous, but it raises problems that don’t apply to the desktop context, such as relatively limited storage and bandwidth, and of course data caps and battery life.

Dirk Trossen, the technical manager for Pursuit, pointed out to me via email on Wednesday that today’s mobile storage can greatly exceed the desktop storage of 10 years ago. Also noting the profusion of connected storage devices, he said the increasing potential for distributed storage was key to Pursuit’s design:

“Each information item is individually addressable with items being possibly very large objects or (more likely) smaller chunks of something bigger. Hence, I can assemble larger objects by collecting the chunks, akin to P2P systems albeit realised at the level of the current internetworking protocol (making it very efficient). With that, I can take any storage into count that has (even a chunk of) my information that I want. Whether some storage is smaller than other does not really matter.”

So what about data caps and battery life? There, Trossen pointed out that it’s not necessary to seed data to others all the time, as data can come from alternative sources. “This ‘diffusion’ is easy to implement with simple rules in each end device, while the network at a very low level (compared to P2P systems) would take care of the delivery itself,” he said.

Pursuit clearly has many advantages when it comes to network efficiency and security, too, because without servers you don’t have to worry about denial-of-service attacks — there is simply no centralized point to overload. But, circling back to the issue that made me think about the potential of such distributed systems, what about surveillance and censorship?

According to Trossen, this comes down to the way in which Pursuit is deployed:

“Similar to today, if you designed the deployment appropriately, censorship and surveillance would become very difficult (using encryption, ‘hiding’ behind labels without using meaningful names or changing the name to label association rapidly. However, censorship and surveillance can also become easy by centralising the main components. All this, however, is similar to today’s internet.

“The surveillance unearthed by Snowden was enabled at large by the centralisation of main components of today’s internet (in U.S. jurisdiction). There are certain architectural measures one can do to circumvent that but it’s hard nonetheless. I don’t think that it would be much different in a Pursuit world, if you don’t have the societal push for reduced surveillance. In short: censorship and surveillance in a policy/society problem.”

Pursuit is certainly an ambitious project, because — unlike PARC’s similar “content centric networking” idea — it’s a replacement for the TCP/IP internetworking protocols, not something designed to run alongside them. For that reason alone, any widespread implementation is likely to be a good way off, but with the amount of online content exploding like it is, it does seem increasingly likely that the future internet will be a whole lot more distributed than it is today.

  1. Fernando Machado Wednesday, October 30, 2013

    For you who is looking for more information about this project: http://www.fp7-pursuit.eu/PursuitWeb/ . David, could you please include this link on your post?

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  2. “In short: censorship and surveillance [is] a policy/society problem”: Agreed. Still, distributing content could help.

    “it’s a replacement for the TCP/IP internetworking protocols, not something designed to run alongside them”: Really? That sounds not just ambitious but rather impractical. There’s a vast infrastructure supporting TCP/IP networking, A peer-to-peer system has a better chance of widespread adoption if, like BitTorrent, it runs atop rather than demands replacing all that (at least the “IP” part of it; the “TCP” part doesn’t matter so much).

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  3. I might point out that Btsync is also capable of doing this. today, we can create static websites on p2p secure networks using a software called btsync. It is possible in theory, and if tpb fails to operate on the clearnet due to whatever reasons, btsync can and will take over as the defacto means for serving torrent files online. currently in beta, you should try it out.

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  4. This is DOA as the content Nazi’s and this totalitarian regime we live in (USSA,) wont ever let this get off the ground.

    Because you know without saying that authentication across such a network will be guaranteed to be onerous and unusable.

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  5. Future Internet Scientist Friday, November 15, 2013

    “Pursuit is certainly an ambitious project, because — unlike PARC’s similar “content centric networking” idea — it’s a replacement for the TCP/IP internetworking protocols, not something designed to run alongside them. ”

    That is not true. This is a lie that many researchers will tell because everyone who does work in computer networking knows that replacing TCP/IP is a goal.

    This is nothing more than a content distribution network, and it is nothing new. The reason people get juiced up about “advancements” like this is what I call the Great-Granny technique:

    ,…”So you are over at your grandma’s house…and she wants to see photos that you had Photoshop that shows her and her husband from 1930.., but the Internet connection is broken…what to do?”….

    The person (you) reading this blurb thinks…”Gee…how sweet, my great grandma really wants to see her late husband…and Internet is broken…” I really need to support this future-internet project so that all the grannies of the world can see their late husbands…you go great-gran-mammy…”

    Throw in a little crypto, some current buzzwords like “Internet of Things” or “Clean Slate”, and a “prototype” of SOMETHING, preferrably showing video, that shows data being moved over your “prototype”..and all the suits standing around don’t really have a clue of exactly what they are looking at, but you’ve used so many Oxford-level words in your presentation…and the blurb about Granny…wow…you have to fund this project.

    You might wonder…if all this is true, why would they get a Future Internet award? The answer is politics. In a nutshell, the Internet, as we know it, was engineered almost entirely by individuals based in the USA. Sure, many excellent technical guru’s came from Europe and elsewhere, but all the technical bodies that orchestrate the guts of the Internet has USA addresses.

    Now imagine that you are a Prime Minister of some country in Europe, and you look across the Atlantic Ocean, seeing 20-30-something’s becoming billionaires, by coding in their underwear, essentially at your expense. You realize that the USA is doing what you should have been doing. But the IAB and IETF are rooted in USA, so what do you do? You create your own “IAB” and hopefully, eventually, IETF. You then do something very important: You create your own awards program (better late than never). You give this award, and make sure that the entire world sees you giving it, to a European of course. Doesn’t matter if there is merit. Just give the award. Add lots of pomp.

    This is not the future of the Internet. The future of the Internet will be created by a scientist. Not a social scientist, but a real scientist who understands that..to find the cure for pancreatic cancer, hugs are great, but you had better know a thing or two about chemistry and biotechnology and make sure that you spend most of the grant dollars on chemistry and biotechnology, not hug-festing.

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