The Global Environment for Network Innovations (GENI) idea is to build an experimental facility that researchers can use to experiment with new communications and networking technology, distributed systems, cyber-security aspects, and applications. A couple of weeks ago I attended a talk given by Craig Patridge, chief scientist at BBN technologies. Craig is heading the GENI project office tasked with implementing GENI. He is an engaging speaker and got me thinking about the merits of building GENI.
GENI is a sort of first for the National Science Foundation (NSF) and the network research community. NSF occasionally funds large infrastructure projects like building astronomy telescopes and particle accelerators but this is the first time that a networking infrastructure is being funded. The interesting thing is that the infrastructure comes first and then protocols or services follow. Moreover, the infrastructure will be built based on requirements specified by the research community. Is this the future of network research?
The current Internet is an engineering marvel. It scaling property is absolutely remarkable - 100s of millions of hosts in a federated environment with completely different underlying access technologies just work. Then the creative engineers and innovators come in to shape the Internet APIs (e.g. IP communication stack) into myriad applications - email, VOIP, P2P, Web 2.0, digital libraries, and whatever else they can think of.
The Internet was first built by engineers, and later scientists highlighted several flaws in its design. This has sometimes served as a good feedback loop for refining the Internet over time. For example, security researchers have continually unearthed security holes in the IP socket stack. Scientists, coming from the outside, study the insides of the Internet and contribute to refining the already-built Internet.
But can researchers with limited engineering experience design a new communication infrastructure such as the GENI infrastructure? I very much doubt this. Researchers are seldom successful in building viable commercial technologies. They are very smart but usually focused on one or few problems. It is not at all clear if GENI could deliver the next Internet.
But lets back-pedal a little. Is GENI supposed to be building the next Internet? Answer: perhaps not. But what I find troubling about the GENI (or FIRE - the European counterpart) is that there is that almost the whole OSI stack - network, transport, session and applications - is supposed to come from the research community. I really really wonder who is going to write all this up? Off course there can be a module-based approach to plugging in pre-existing pieces into GENI, but then how is this Internet design revolutionary, and does this justify building GENI in the first place? Why not stick with something more real like PlanetLab?
I don't believe scientists can build another Internet from the inside out. Shouldn't building a new network, from the inside, be left to the engineers?