DARPA, the department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, is working on a technology that could change the way in which network congestion problems are handled.
The agency is gathering a team of researchers from several organisations to create a technology called Active Networks that would give data packets the intelligence to more efficiently direct themselves though a network -- and not rely on network hardware to do the job.
Observers said the technologies under development for Active Networks may be critical for taking advantage of rapidly expanding network bandwidth.
"It's the next IP," said Frank Dzubeck, president of Communications Network Architects, a consultancy in Washington.
Active Networks is Java-based, and allows packets to find their own paths. In this way, it promises to eliminate the bottleneck created by today's overworked routers, Dzubeck said. As enterprises get faster WAN pipes, router delays will grow, he predicted.
"Today, at 56Kbps, you don't have to worry; But at 2.4Gbps you will notice the delays," Dzubeck said.
But Dzubeck added that before Active Networks is widely implemented, advances in routing hardware could eliminate the problem.
DARPA is also working on a companion project, the Next Generation Internet (NGI), which will consist of a nationwide web of optical fiber that is integrated with management software to maintain high-speed connections.
This week, the Defense Department will announce that Network Associates has been granted contracts to develop secure working prototypes for Active Networks, to help develop a new software base for Active Network nodes, called Active Node Transfer, and to develop new cryptographic techniques to protect the packets and routers from attack. The company is also developing an adaptive cryptographic scheme for NGI that will alternate among security algorithms based on current risk and need for high-speed performance.
The need for system security will be critical, according to DARPA.
"You're using the resources of the infrastructure in order to do the processing," said Hilarie Orman, program manager of the information technology office at DARPA. "These are the ISP resources, router cycles, memory, possibly even disk storage. [This usage] turns them into a shared resource, and there are a number of security problems. You need to protect the Active [Networks] router itself against denial-of-service attacks and to protect against one program taking over the entire router."
One large Internet service provider, GTE's BBN division, has a team helping to develop Active Networks technologies. Carriers are also contributing to the NGI, with partner companies having received contracts to build pieces of the infrastructure.
Network Associates plans to present several proof-of-concept demonstrations to DARPA and its development partners by April, Network Associates said. The actual implementation of such technology will occur throughout several years.
"Active Networks rides over current Internet IP packets. A full concept of Active Networks is a complete replacement," Orman said. "This is a five- to 10-year time frame."
The Department of Defense's Advanced Research Projects Agency, in Arlington, Virginia, is at www.darpa.mil. Network Associates Inc., in Santa Clara, California, is at www.nai.com.