Internet 2: the sequel

US academic and federal bodies are working to revolutionise the Internet. Expect to see Internet 2 coming to a screen near you,...

US academic and federal bodies are working to revolutionise the Internet. Expect to see Internet 2 coming to a screen near you, says Danny Bradbury

What is Internet 2?

Internet 2 is a collaborative project to develop next generation applications that will take advantage of very fast wide area networks. Internet 2 doesn't involve the development of a separate network to replace the Internet, but is about the software on such networks.

Who started it, and when?

The initiative by 34 universities began in October 1996. One year later, as the project gathered force, the universities set up the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (Ucaid), a non-profit consortium of mainly academic bodies. By September 2000, it had 180 academic members.

Why is it better than the current Net?

The current Internet can be slow, and the applications available to work over it are still relatively limited, says Ucaid. We can access Web sites and buy things online, but accessing such services is not transparent. Pervasive computing, where the Net is a transparent medium, is still far from a reality. Ucaid wants to improve the Net in a number of areas. Today's Internet has millions of users accessing pages, e-mail and low quality multimedia. Ucaid wants to prepare the Internet to cope with billions of users and different types of devices. In particular, it wants to make end-to-end performance more reliable and develop applications that let people collaborate more effectively across the Internet.

What applications are they running?

Applications currently under development include tele-immersion, which enables people in remote locations to collaborate together as though they were in the same room. The virtual reality-based technology can also be used to enable participants to interact with computer-generated data. A good example of this is the video at class="bodylink" href="../../ Another application is the digital library. Current online libraries consist mainly of textual information, and access is often unreliable due to the slow, failure-prone nature of the Net. The future digital library, accessed via a high-speed network, will enable users to access all types of multimedia. Ucaid also predicts an increase in push technology, enabling libraries to update interested users when relevant information changes. Real-time help via videoconferencing will also be more feasible.

The virtual laboratory is another project Ucaid is working on. It involves the administration of many different remote technical resources over high-speed networks to solve large problems. Other features under development include QBone, a test network for quality of service technology, and middleware services to handle software communication. Although such applications are largely academic at present, it is possible to visualise benefits to e-commerce users in the future.

Imagine, for example, a company selling fitted kitchens. An online customer could don a headset and walk round a kitchen in virtual reality, collaborating with a salesperson who could be "seen" in the cyberspace kitchen.

How does Internet 2 relate to Abilene and Next Generation Internet?

Such projects work alongside each other. The Next Generation Internet (NGI) project is a federally-funded initiative that was founded in October 1997. The scheme is designed to create a high-speed physical network and also to work on applications for it. Abilene was set up by US backbone provider Qwest, along with Nortel and Cisco. The infrastructure has been running since February 1999. Universities working in the Internet 2 project can access these two networks, along with the National Science Foundation's very high-speed Backbone Network Service.

When will we be able to use it?

The Internet is an organic medium that grows in stages. Both Ucaid and the US Government have indicated that they want their technologies to be transferred to the commercial sector as quickly as possible, but there is no firm date on which the next generation of Internet technologies will be unveiled. Rather, companies that are currently commercially involved in the technology will make them available when they are tried and tested.

Expect to see enhancements to major commercial network backbones facilitating higher-speed communication in the next few years. As these enhancements are made, you will see applications with their roots in the Internet 2 and NGI initiatives gradually appearing.

Which suppliers are contributing to it?

The founders of Abilene - Cisco, Nortel and Qwest - are also corporate partners of the Internet 2 program, as are IBM, Microsoft, AT&T and 3Com. Other companies have opted for corporate membership of the programme rather than partnership. These include Bell Atlantic, Deutsche Telekom, Hitachi, Motorola and NEC.

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