|Volume 7, Issue 1 -
From the Director
THE CASE FOR A NEXT GENERATION INTERNET
Ken Kennedy, Director, CRPC
The United States Congress is currently considering the fate of the Next Generation Internet (NGI), a $100 million-per-year research and infrastructure program proposed by the Clinton administration to seed the construction of a new hardware and software network infrastructure and "foster partnerships among academia, industry and government that will keep the U.S. at the cutting edge of information and communications technologies."
As the co-chair of the White House Advisory Committee on High Performance Computing and Communications, Information Technology, and the Next Generation Internet, I have spent a great deal of time over the past two months contemplating the impact of this proposed program. To most of us in the computing community, this initiative seems like a no- brainer; if done well, it will provide enormous benefits to our nation by revolutionizing the way we do business in this country and around the world. Everyone, from the multinational business developing new product designs to the individual consumer making an informed purchase, will benefit from the orders-of-magnitude improvement in end-to-end communication bandwidth that will be provided by the NGI.
So why is Congress hesitating? There are three reasons: (1) confusion over the relationship between NGI and Internet 2, (2) concern that the government may be investing in an area whose development should be left to industry, and (3) concern that the government intends to build and operate an infrastructure that will be competitive with the commercial Internet.
The first of these concerns is easiest to address. Internet 2 is a consortium of universities that have contributed to a pool of funds that will be used to interconnect one another at bandwidths that are at least 100 times greater than those provided by the current commercial Internet. This goal is completely consistent with the goals of the NGI, because the federal agencies understand that the real innovations will come from the development of new ways to use this bandwidth and, historically, most of these developments have come from the research community at universities and government-funded laboratories.
The second concern-federal government investment in an area that is currently a focus of many commercial efforts-is more complicated. Because network developments typically prompt commercial backbone developments, can we not assume that the desired bandwidth will simply appear at our doorstep in the near future? A better question is: Will anyone be willing to pay for this bandwidth if it is made available to the consumer? The answer is that very few institutions will pay unless the benefits far outweigh the costs. Simply doing current Internet applications faster will not justify the investment. To dramatically increase the benefits of the NGI relative to the costs, we will need new "killer applications." As I pointed out in the previous paragraph, most of the current killer applications (e.g., the World Wide Web and Web browsers) have originated in the research community. It is the early development of innovative applications that will make the NGI economically feasible.
This brings us to the third concern: Should the government be building a new high-performance infrastructure that will compete with the current commercial Internet? Of course not. In fact, many of the same telecommunications companies that support the current Internet will provide the backbone services and high-speed connections for the proposed NGI. Significantly, high-speed connections can be purchased today from those telecommunications companies. The point is that most of the research institutions that will develop tomorrow's killer applications cannot afford to connect at those bandwidths without assistance. The connections portion of the NGI is aimed squarely at overcoming this obstacle to progress. A connections program is needed as a part of the NGI to ensure that research institutions in the U.S. remain at the forefront of HPCC developments. Once the next generation applications are available, the cost of connections will come down through the normal operation of market forces and technological advances.
After my last editorial in this column, which reviewed the arguments in favor of a proposed Petaflops initiative, I was taken to task by Dr. Anita Jones, Director of Defense Research and Engineering, who correctly pointed out that a Petaflops initiative cannot be viewed as an alternative to another warplane because the two are "never on the table at the same time." Instead, the initiative must be considered as an alternative to the NGI. Viewing the budget alternatives in that way, I agree that the NGI must take priority, because it has a broader impact on the nation's public and private interests. However, we must keep in mind that the NGI cannot be successful without a balance of high- performance computation and high-bandwidth communications-the last thing we need is more bottlenecks due to overloaded servers.
In considering the NGI, I hope that the Congress keeps in mind that it is a research program. As currently envisioned, it will investigate ways to overcome impediments to the success of a new high-bandwidth global information infrastructure that will be established over the next decade. It will create a broad-based testbed that can be used to support research into security, reliability, quality of service, application construction environments, and new applications-all the things we need to effectively utilize the higher bandwidths that will soon be available. If successful, it will be possible for the NGI to make the transition from prototype to commercial resource in way that will ensure U.S. leadership in this key technological area for the foreseeable future.
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