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Researcher Helps Develop More Resilient Internet

September 27, 2012

It’s startling to ponder the numerous ways our society relies almost completely upon on the Internet to conduct the business of everyday life. Commerce, communication, and even national security all require a functioning World Wide Web.

“We really depend on the Internet for absolutely everything we do,” said James Sterbenz, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at the University of Kansas. “Governments depend on it to deliver services, and the military depends on it, and businesses depend on it foEECS Associate Professor James Sterbenzr commerce and the stock market. We depend on it as individuals to get information, and to do banking, and to buy things — so much so that when the Internet is down, things tend to cease. You go into a store, and the point-of-sales terminals don’t work, and they can’t even sell you anything.”

But without adequate research and preparation, threats such as natural disasters or terrorist attacks could bring the Internet crashing down with grievous consequences. That’s why Dr. Sterbenz is leading a $1.5 million effort funded by the National Science Foundation and Battelle to design a future Internet that will be much more resilient than it is today.

“There are a lot of weak points,” said Dr. Sterbenz. “An example of that is that there was a train that burned in a tunnel under Baltimore a few years ago. It melted all the fiber running through the conduit. And because that was a convenient place way to get through the city, many service providers ran their fiber through. So people did lose service because of that because it was a weak point.”

The KU researcher said that an attacker who has probed the network to discover such weak points likewise could do considerable damage, not only to the physical infrastructure of the Internet, but also to the “protocol infrastructure,” such as the Domain Name System that translates human-friendly identifiers like www.ku.edu to Internet addresses and the Internet’s core routing system, the Border Gateway Protocol.

“These are very critical to the operation of the Internet,” Dr. Sterbenz said. “And those do have some vulnerabilities. Attacks against those protocols specifically can have pretty significant impact. People can’t get to websites, and communication can’t occur.”

To advance the robustness of the Internet, Dr. Sterbenz leads a team of researchers who are analyzing the complex networks of computers and fiber that constitute the Internet and World Wide Web. “We look at that structure and analyze it to determine mathematically how robust it is against part of it being taken away,” he said. “When we do that, we can see how current networks as well as proposed networks and structures we add will make it more resilient.”

Redundancy and geographic diversity are keys to a hardier network, according to Dr. Sterbenz.

“You want at least two paths between two users, so if one is taken out, you have another one,” said Dr. Sterbenz. “The other thing we want is geographic diversity. So you’d like to be able to set up multiple paths between two users such that no point is closer than, for example, 100 miles, so if there’s some area-based challenge, you’re still able to communicate.”

Dr. Sterbenz leads an international programmable testbed called GpENI: Great Plains Environment for Network Innovation, part of the NSF Global Environments for Network Innovation program, which he will use to run experiments to see how new resilience mechanisms work in the real world. The GpENI testbed is also open to others in the network research community to run their own experiments for resilience or other research.

Upon completion of the research, the KU researcher said his team would make all results available to other researchers with a public wiki, as well as publish papers and present findings at conferences. Information is available online.

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