Overlay networks may alleviate Internet logjams

By Richard Pearson, The China Post

M. Frans Kaashoek compares the current state of the Internet to an overtaxed freeway system and the solutions to fix it like the detours drivers are required to take around problem areas.

As users of the Internet have increased exponentially in recent years bottlenecks have increased slowing down users and stunting efficiency. According to Kaashoek, a professor of electrical engineering and information technology at MIT, “A common, but incorrect, view of the topology of the Internet is that institutions and companies connect to ‘The Great Internet Cloud.’ In this view, the Internet is very robust, rapidly routing packets around failures and traffic overload, and providing near-perfect service. Unfortunately, this ideal view of the Internet cloud is far from reality.” According to Kaashoek, the Internet in its current state is jammed with information being slowly routed to its destination and is, as a consequence, poorly suited to critical applications.

Kaashoek says that for users to truly realize the potential of the Internet it becomes essential to develop networks that are less prone to bottlenecks, encourage efficiency and “robustness,” allow for sophisticated algorithms, and permit more freedom in the routing of information. Kaashoek says that the solution to the Internet’s current shortcomings may be similar to the detours and alternate routes so loved by urban highway departments and so despised by motorists.

According to Kaashoek, speaking in Taipei yesterday at the New Directions in Information Technology conference sponsored by the Epoch Foundation, constructing “overlay networks” may alleviate the current backups by providing an alternative route for information transmission.

Overlay networks, constructed on top of the existing Internet, increase the avenues for information distribution across the Internet, says Kaashoek. By building a series of “nodes” that are then connected to each other and cooperate to route information away from the overloaded Internet service providers (ISP) an overly network is created. In this way, Kaashoek says, a more failure-tolerant and efficient Internet can be achieved. Currently such resilient overlay networks (RON) are deployed in 13 select regions in the United States and Europe. According to Kaashoek they are being developed in Asia. Kaashoek admits that overlay networks are still in their infancy and not without technical challenges. He says however that such networks provide a promising direction to improve the Internet with more applications to come in time.