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Air Time: The Internet as a Legacy System

Global Legacy

Today's global Internet is the most problematic legacy system. Around for a generation, it is an invention surely on the shortlist of the most significant innovations in human history. But its architecture is woefully obsolete, and perhaps even dangerous.

The roots of the Internet and TCP/IP date to the early days of packet switching, when circuit-switched and hierarchical networks were considered best practice. Remember that it was a relatively obscure Boston company called Bolt Baranek & Newman, rather than a major computer or telecom industry player, that won the Department of Defense bid. Legend suggests that the brightest minds at AT&T and IBM concluded that packet switching would never work. The Internet pioneers may have proved them wrong, but their underlying system design has required frequent tactical fixes--"architectural barnacles," as some critics refer to them, unsightly outcroppings that address short-term problems but have a negative impact on other key system attributes.

Two notable deficiencies are security and mobility. Its trusted-system architecture makes the Internet an easy target for hackers and potentially for cyber-terrorists. On the mobility front, the IP address design that seemed adequate in the 1970s won't meet the needs of millions and perhaps billions of wireless devices. Fixes like SNMPv3, IPsec and Mobile IP have short-term appeal, but they really are just ugly hacks. As the complexity of the underlying problems increases, the potential for incremental solutions diminishes.

No Simple Solutions