10 of today's really cool network & IT research projects

Here's what top university and college researchers are cooking up for wireless, cloud, security and other tech innovations

overseeing – and served by – such industrial networks. Researchers at Iowa State University are building a cybersecurity testbed to help safeguard power grids.

The PowerCyber laboratory is designed to do vulnerability analysis, risk assessment, attack-defense evaluations, and more. It’s complicated, given that we’re talking not just about communications networks and software, but also power lines, towers, sensors and other components.

powercyber Photo by Christopher Gannon/Iowa State University

Iowa State's Manimaran Govindarasu and Doug Jacobson are leading studies of power grid cyber security, including development of the PowerCyber testbed.

The NSF- and Department of Homeland Security-supported testbed, led by Iowa State’s Doug Jacobson and Manimaran Govindarasu, ties in with Jacobson’s time-tested ISEAGE network for cybersecurity studies. It’s being used for industry training and student studies, and also for cyber defense competition taking place in February.

“We can use this testbed to run attacks and see the consequences on the power system,” Govindarasu said in a statement. “If it’s a blackout, how do we mitigate that? We can also prepare for these attacks and for our defenses.”

BRINGING LIGHT TO MICROPROCESSORS

Engineers from UC Berkeley, MIT and the University of Colorado Boulder have joined forces to build the world’s first microprocessors that marry electrons and photons, paving the way for seriously faster computing and communications. What’s more, they did so in a foundry that mass produces more common computer chips, so the promise would be that such light-emitting chips could be made at commercial production rates, too.

The researchers described their breakthrough in a paper published in the journal Nature in December.

“This is a milestone. It’s the first processor that can use light to communicate with the external world,” said Vladimir Stojanović, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer sciences at the University of California, Berkeley, who led the development of the chip. “No other processor has the photonic I/O in the chip.”

The researchers boasted that the energy-efficient chip had bandwidth density of 300Gbps per square millimeter, a 10 to 50 times improvement over standard microprocessors. This DARPA-backed research has already spawned a couple of startups targeting more energy-efficient data centers.

MAKING NOISE TO REMAIN UNDETECTABLE

Sometimes anonymous network technologies, such as Tor, aren’t quite as anonymous as users might like to think they are. MIT researchers, however, say they have invented a supposedly untraceable text-messaging system that comes with statistical guarantees of secrecy and that also works pretty fast.

The researchers cheekily refer to their creation as Vuvuzela, after the loud plastic horns that became infamous during the 2010 FIFA World Cup in Safe Africa, in that it thwarts snoopers by creating noise on the network so that they can’t detect what’s being passed from one person to another. Vuvuzela source code is available here.  

Network World’s Tim Greene wrote in December that “The system uses encryption and a set of servers to conceal whether or not parties are participating in text-based conversations.” It doesn’t need to anonymize the actual participants in a conversation since “all the communications from clients to the servers are triple-wrapped in encryption,” he writes.

THE TRUTH ABOUT EMAIL

Researchers have published a report that shows that email security goes a long way toward protecting passwords, financial data and more, but still isn't close to foolproof.

One big problem is that the security protocols bolted on to the original Internet architecture aren't universally implemented on servers, even though big players like Google have adopted such methods (Note: Google worked on this study with researchers from the University of Michigan and University of Illinois.). Even advanced encryption can be corrupted.

“Much of the measurement work done in my lab is focused on how we can incentivize an individual or an organization to make a right decision — to adopt these security protocols,” says University of Illinois Coordinated Science Lab Associate Professor Michael Bailey, in a statement. “A lot of the interesting work in security goes beyond not only modeling the technology, but modeling the organizations that use that technology and how they choose to use it.” 

Bailey acknowledges: “I work under the assumption that any email I send without special care has an Internet-wide distribution list."

WIFI ROUTERS DO DOUBLE DUTY

wifi router u washington Dennis Wise/ University of Washington

The UW team used ambient signals from this Wi-Fi router to power sensors in a low-resolution camera and other devices.

University of Washington researchers don't appreciate Wi-Fi routers slacking off: The devices have enough untapped energy that they can be used to power devices in addition to connecting them.

Their Power Over Wi-Fi system harvests energy from Wi-Fi signals to power Internet of Things devices such as temperature sensors, cameras and fitness trackers -- the kinds of things nobody wants to have to plug in to power up. Best of all, PoWiFi does this without messing with the quality of Wi-Fi communications.

You can read the details in a paper titled "Powering the Next Billion Devices with Wi-Fi."

Down the road, the researchers could look at enabling PoWi-Fi to work across greater distances and scale up to power many devices at once. The current research is funded by the NSF, Qualcomm and the University.

25 MORE cool networking and computing research projects

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