China's next generation Net is way ahead of the West
The Net is getting creaky and old: it is rapidly running out of space and remains fundamentally insecure. And it turns out that China is streets ahead of the West in doing anything about it.
A report published in the "Philosophical Transactions" of the Royal Society this month details China's advances in creating a next-generation Internet that is on a national level and on a larger scale than anything in the West.
At the root of the problem are "two major gaps in the architecture of the Internet", according to a report from the New England Complex Systems Institute, compiled in 2008 for the US Navy and released to the public this month. First up is the Internet's inability to block malicious traffic as a whole. While malware can rapidly replicate and distribute itself across the Net, organisations can only respond to individual instances of online aggression.
China is already coming up with better defences. One of the most important aspects of its next-generation backbone is a security feature known as source address validation architecture (SAVA). Many of the existing security problems stem from an inability to authenticate IP addresses of computers that try to connect to your network. SAVA fixes this by adding checkpoints across the network. These build up a database of trusted computers matched up with their IP addresses. Packets of data will be blocked if the computer and IP address don't match. Steve Wolff, one of the Internet's early pioneers, calls it a "model that should be much more widely adopted".
Even setting security worries aside, the Internet is running out of room. The current standard for assigning space to computers - known as Internet Protocol Version Four (IPv4) - uses a numbering system which has just under 4.3 billion possible spaces. Internet engineers have been working on the new standard for years. It is called IPv6 and will boost the number of available Internet slots by a mind-boggling 80,000 trillion trillion times. But progress on IPv6 has been painfully slow, and time is running out. IPv4 slots are due to run out in multiple regions around the world this year.
But China has been planning for that day for a long time, under pressure from its massive population, all of whom want to be connected to the Net. So says Donald Riley, an information systems specialist at the University of Maryland, who also chairs the Chinese American Network Symposium.
"China has a national Internet backbone in place that operates under IPv6 as the native network protocol," says Riley. "We have nothing like that in the US."
China is already running next-generation services: Internet service provider 3TNet provides television over IPv6, streaming programmes in high definition. It is the basis for a system that monitors and controls traffic flow over the Internet and provides remote medical services - even long-distance, real-time violin lessons in high definition. All have the potential to reach more people at higher speeds than any equivalent service on the old Internet.
"If you are thinking about the future of the Internet, anyone that explores that territory and maps it out first has a definite competitive advantage," Riley says, "especially with the resources available to China."