Internet's hardware complexity to make way for a simpler optical core


Internet's hardware complexity to make way for a simpler optical core

Over the next decade the technical core of the internet will become much simpler, with optical technology dominating in switchers and routers, according to this year's BCS Lovelace lecture.

Nick McKeown, associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University and the world's leading expert on router design, made this prediction after accepting the 2005 BCS Lovelace Medal.

McKeown said that the web had changed everything for router technology, and processing had moved from line cards to switch operation.

"The explosion of complexity in routers - IPv6, multicast, access control lists, firewalls, virtual routing, etc - has signalled the end of the internet end-to-end model, creating a lot of uncertainty about the future and a situation where there is very little competition between those who manufacture routers," he said.

To meet the need for dependability and reliability throughout the whole network, routers would grow in size but become simpler, with fewer features, he predicted.

In future, routers might function via load balancing over passive optics, with packets distributed randomly across the lines. A passive optical switch, which consumes no power itself, will regulate the data flow, eliminating the need for arbiters (directional data packet buffers) and increasing performance.

Flow-by-flow load-balancing will enable the building of a mesh network, which will operate over a logical mesh of optical circuits, support all traffic patterns, be resilient against failure, demonstrate simple routing and cost less to run.

Currently, no network provider makes a profit from generating public internet services, which are subsidised by voice (especially mobile) and virtual private network activities. According to McKeown, this anomaly would inevitably lead to the consolidation of network providers, with ultimately a single monopoly provider.

Potentially, optical dynamic circuit switches could be used, said McKeown. These simple, low-cost switches have high capacities for unit volume and wattage, no queues and no delay variation.

However, they are also unfashionable as they originate from old technologies. "If they do make a return they'll probably put router developers, me included, out of work," McKeown said.

The BCS Lovelace Medal is named after mathematician and scientist Ada Lovelace, who inspired computer pioneer Charles Babbage. The medal is awarded to individuals who have made a significant contribution to the understanding or advancement of information systems.

Information on BCS membership:


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This was first published in July 2006


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