The Internet 2 project promises to revolutionise e-commerce when it finally yields fruit. Danny Bradbury investigates.
One of the biggest complaints about the Internet today is that it is so slow and unreliable. In a period where everyone is asking for service level agreements and performance guarantees, the Internet is more of a kludge than a perfect solution.
The problem is it was not designed for commercial use but it was built to withstand a nuclear attack, by rerouting data around network damage.
If a group of US universities and technology suppliers have their way, the Internet will grow up rapidly in the next five years, thanks to a set of software and hardware technologies. There are a couple of initiatives underway to revolutionise Internet communications and produce a few flagship applications that will demonstrate the potential to enhance e-business.
The move towards Internet 2 started in 1996, when 34 universities clubbed together to create the University Corporation for Advanced Internet Development (UCAID). The organisation wanted to develop a network capability that would benefit academic institutions in their research. Its activities have blossomed through working groups into key areas including advanced applications, middleware and new networking capabilities.
The applications activity is the most exciting aspect of Internet 2. Working groups focus on areas like teleimmersion, where participants are placed in a virtual reality environment with which they can interact.
Because different people can occupy the virtual space from other locations, teleimmersion will enable working together online, say, on walking through a virtual model of a building to discuss architectural issues.
Other applications include creating virtual laboratories, where lots of different computing resources across the Internet are used with each other to solve large problems. For example, different members of a project can use their own resources to help solve vast calculations.
The work on new networking capabilities will also produce advances in quality of service. Working groups are discussing how to use the innovative IPv6 standard in Internet 2.
So what will the next generation of Internet services mean for electronic business? The answer is little, until it breaks out of the academic ivory tower to the commercial world. This should happen within the next five years. It will probably happen in bits, rather than as a single announcement, simply because it involves so many academic and commercial parties.
But when it does, it will make the Internet faster. This will attract a larger number of consumers and business users to start using it seriously. Ideally, the increased bandwidth and reduced latency inherent in the Internet 2 project will enable companies to offer more intuitive applications.
Virtual reality services are currently slow and scarce. Some technologies do exist, but are used on an ad-hoc basis, and are more of a novelty. If they could become easier to implement and more effective, we could enter a whole new world of electronic business.
But the biggest revolution will come in video. At present, the communications services across the Internet are of questionable quality, with time lags and poor quality images. Few users of products like Microsoft's Netmeeting would consider using it to speak to customers. With next generation technologies, it would be easier to conduct videoconferencing sessions with potential customers online.
It would be possible to use the interactive nature of the Internet providing them with animated presentations alongside video sessions. Imagine a pension salesperson manipulating earnings prediction graphs on-screen to push home their point.
Hopefully, the development of Internet 2 and its associated technologies will be preceded by new, non-PC devices, making Internet access completely intuitive. Fast access to high bandwidth applications via digital TV would make it possible for you to press a speed dial button on your remote control and instantly be in touch with your granny in Scotland, in high-definition video and audio. More to the point, you could be watching a commercial and decide you want to speak to a representative there and then. With next generation Internet capabilities, this would be possible.
Still, we have a long way to go before this is reality. For one thing, the local loop has to be revolutionised. High-speed, always-on connections to the home must be ubiquitous and cheap, or all the backbone functionality inthe world won't make any difference. We have to walk before we can run.
Network infrastructure projects
UCAID's Internet 2 project focuses on software aspects of high-speed communication rather than on hardware. There are other organisations and initiatives attempting to overhaul the current network infrastructure so applications under development at UCAID can run effectively. These include the following organisations in the UK:
United Kingdom Education and Research Networking Association - this organisation is responsible for development of the JANET educational networks.
Joint Information Systems Committee - JISC promotes the use of information technology among the academic community in the UK.
The following are US initiatives:
Abilene - a high-speed network originally set up by US data communications carrier Qwest, running since February 1999.
Very high-speed Backbone Network Service (VBNS) - another high-speed backbone owned by the National Science Foundation.
CA*Net 3 - Canada's own Research and Education Internet backbone, which started operation in autumn 1998.
Defense Research Engineering Network (DREN) - a US Department of Defense communications network for conducting research using high-performance computing techniques.