A brain for the Internet?

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Could a software project at Stanford University change the way that the Internet works, for the better? OpenFlow, a project developed in collaboration with the University of California, Berkeley, could enable application software to tell the routers and switches underpinning the Internet what to do.

Currently, application software has no say over how the Internet routes its packets from one place to another. A packet goes from one router to another, which uses a routing table to send it on to the next. In this way, the package blindly makes its way to its destination via a series of hops.

The researchers behind OpenFlow anticipate a programmable network in which network operating system software understands the network infrastructure, and can instruct the switches and routers. This concept, known as software-defined networking, would enable administrators to dynamically configure networks to suit applications with particular types of traffic.

Inside a data centre, programmable network technology like this might enable administrators to control which switches and routers are being used, so that network components that are not being used can be turned off, and traffic can be consolidated. This could save significant energy costs in the data centre over time.

Right now, the software is being used on an ad hoc basis in various academic campuses. However, a collection of 23 technology companies including Google has formed the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). This will try to standardise the technology behind OpenFlow, making it accessible to a broader base of users, including commercial organisations.

The Internet wasn't originally built to have such intelligence. It was a ‘dumb’ network. Now, organisations want to build smarts directly into the core infrastructure, comprising firmware, and a network operating system to control it. More than 40 years after the Internet first emerged, it could finally be getting a brain.

Stewart Baines

I've been writing about technology for nearly 20 years, including editing industry magazines Connect and Communications International. In 2002 I co-founded Futurity Media with Anthony Plewes. My focus in Futurity Media is in emerging technologies, social media and future gazing. As a graduate of philosophy & science, I have studied futurology & foresight to the post-grad level.