The Next Internet? Inside PARC’s Vision of Content Centric Networking

The Internet may be hurtling toward collapse under the strain of too much traffic. But PARC research fellow Van Jacobson thinks he knows how to fix it.

He’s done it before. Back in the mid-1980s, when the Internet was seeing its first modest surge in usage, Jacobson noticed that data packets were piling up on the message routers of the day, like cars waiting for cross-traffic to clear before entering an intersection. Working with fellow Berkeley computer science instructor Mike Karels, he came up with a small change to the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP) that, in essence, allowed packets to ease into the intersections gradually, curing the congestion. Later, Jacobson also came up with a way to compress the “headers” or address sections of Internet Protocol (IP) packets from 40 bytes down to about 3 or 4 bytes, which made a big difference at a time when so many packets were still squeezing through narrow telephone lines.

But the challenges the Internet is facing today are very different, and call for a much broader solution, Jacobson believes. He argues that the global computing network was never designed to carry exabytes of video, voice, and image data to consumers’ homes and mobile devices, as it’s now doing, and that it will never be possible to increase wireless or land-line bandwidth fast enough to keep up with demand. In fact, he thinks the Internet has outgrown its original underpinnings as a network built on physical addresses, and that it’s time to put aside TCP/IP and start over with a completely novel approach to naming, storing, and moving data.

Jacobson’s alternative is called Content Centric Networking, or CCN, and it’s grown into the single biggest internal project at PARC, the Xerox-owned research center that’s famous as the birthplace of graphical computing, laser printing, and the Ethernet standard. If the ideas behind CCN were broadly adopted, PARC researchers believe, it would speed the delivery of content and vastly reduce the load on the networking equipment at the Internet’s core.

It would also pose a challenge to the model of utility-style storage and processing that’s come to be known as cloud computing. And that might undermine many current business models in the software and digital content industries—while at the same time creating new ones. In other words, it’s just the kind of revolutionary idea that has remade Silicon Valley at least four times since the 1960s. And this time, PARC doesn’t want to miss out on the rewards.

“When there is widespread adoption of CCN there will be lots of opportunities to build valuable businesses on top of it that are really impossible to foresee today,” says Teresa Lunt, vice president of PARC’s Computing Science Laboratory. “The main reason we’re investing is because we’re in love with the technology, and we want CCN to make it out into the world…[but] we know that PARC will be able to participate in the upside as well.”

Replacing “Where Is It?” with “Who Wants It?”

To understand why Content Centric Networking is so different, you have to start by looking at today’s Internet, which was designed back in the days when there were only a handful of machines that needed to talk to each other, and the network was used mainly for short bursts of point-to-point communication. In this established scheme, every piece of content has a name, but to find it you have to know in advance where it’s stored—which means the whole system is built around host identifiers and file hierarchies like (The first part of that URL gets translated into the IP address, which leads to the server at St. Louis, MO-based Contegix where Xconomy’s content database is hosted. The rest refers to the sub-sub-sub-folder on that server where WordPress, our content management system, stored this page.)

The fundamental idea behind Content Centric Networking is that to retrieve a piece of data, you should only have to care about what you want, not where it’s stored. Rather than transmitting a request for a specific file on a specific server, a CCN-based browser or device would simply … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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