US universities tapped to build secure Net

US government agency the National Science Foundation is expected to announce that it has enlisted five university computer...

US government agency the National Science Foundation is expected to announce that it has enlisted five university computer science departments to develop a secure, decentralised Internet infrastructure.

The joint project, called Infrastructure for Resilient Internet Systems (IRIS), aims to use distributed hash table (DHT) technology to develop a common infrastructure for distributed applications.

DHT is like having a file cabinet distributed over numerous servers, explained Frans Kaashoek, a professor of Computer Science and Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), and an IRIS project head. So if one server goes down, not all of the data is compromised.

Like in peer-to-peer networks, there is no central server in the system that contains a list of where all the data are located. Instead, each server has a partial list of where data is stored in the system. The trick for the researchers is creating a "lookup" algorithm that allows the location of data to be found in a short series of steps.

Another challenge, according to Kaashoek, is creating a software interface to access the system.

The researchers hope that they can create a robust, distributed network that could act as a secure storage system for the Internet. Governments, institutions and businesses worldwide could, theoretically, choose to place their data in the secure system, which would minimise the effects of outage or attack.

The project comes amid increased concern over the Internet's vulnerability to viruses and worms, or even a terrorism-related cyber attack.

The National Science Foundation launched the project with a $12m research award to MIT, the University of California at Berkeley, the International Computer Science Institute, New York University, and Rice University in Houston. The award is spread over five years, and at the end of that time period, the research team hopes to have a system in place.

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