A new wave in networking - smart IP packets which know where they're going - is at the sharp end of research by a group of organisations which were crucial in originally creating the Internet.
The Advanced Research Projects Agency is funding research at the University of Utah, MIT, the University of Arizona, and BBN Planet Corp. in the hopes of developing a new "active network" architecture that promises faster performance and greater flexibility.
The first piece of this architecture is a protocol that would replace IP packets with object code. These "active packet" objects could be written in Java or any other suitable object-oriented language.
One researcher, who is testing an active packet implementation, describes the active network architecture as the next phase in networking: first there was circuit switching, then packet switching, and now active packet networks.
"An IP packet is passive," said Jay Lepreau, assistant director of the Computer Systems Laboratory at the University of Utah, in Salt Lake City. "Any IP-directed action is hardwired into the router. This new work involves injecting code into the packets."
Lepreau has tested the protocol in a multicasting application with PCs running JavaOS that act as routers. With more intelligent routing information, receiving computers can discern what information is wanted and modify router code accordingly. Streams of data then automatically branch out in the most efficient manner.
Other applications of the new technology could include firewalls, load balancing, and Web proxy servers. Researchers said the technology will quicken the pace of innovation by decoupling network services from underlying hardware and letting new services be loaded into the infrastructure on demand.
Active packets could dramatically change networking, analysts says.
"If a self-directed packet had the savvy to know where it is going, it could put a lot of people out of business," says Virginia Brooks, an analyst with the Aberdeen Group, in Boston.
An issue, however, that could delay commercial availability of the technology is security. In an active network architecture, users can inject customised programs into the nodes of the network. IP packets are replaced with programs that are executed at each network router/switch traversed.
"I like the idea of taking network intelligence from the hardware and putting it in the packet. IP is rather passive," Brooks said. "But it will take a lot to figure out how you bring order to something that is so democratic."