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The Once and Future Internet

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“The Once and Future Internet,” with apologies to T. H. White. In this talk, I will describe the past and anticipated future of the technology of the Internet, briefly structuring the seminar around the themes inspired by the volumes of the book, The Once and Future King, by T. H. White.

In the beginning, we were all learning about computer communications networks with little guidance. There were many parallel attempts to design and build what became packet switched networks. A bit like Mort learning lessons (remember Art in the Disney film, The Sword in the Stone) from many animals on how to fly, swim, etc, we had to learn how to do naming, addressing, routing, reliability and performance management.

In the end, the winner who pulled the sword out of the stone, so to speak, was the Internet, perhaps because we just had more funding for longer and especially since it was US based.

Having constructed the Internet as a prototype, in 1992, Tim Berners-Lee showed up with the World Wide Web, almost complete from day 1 as a much nicer way for everyday folk to use the network, than the rather odd applications and user interfaces that we had previously devised. Almost immediately (as with Arthur’s kingdom described in The Queen of Air and Darkness aka The Witch in the Wood) bad people started to show up on the network. We had made little provision for security.

It seems that with all the best intentions, users are (perhaps like Lancelot, in The Ill-Made Knight) their own worst enemies. Most people fall for scams, phishing, and so on. Some may wonder what the Holy Grail of the Internet was at this point, and I will offer some possible candidates, while not claiming to be any kind of Galahad.

The end of the Internet is frequently foretold—much as the end of Arthur’s Round Table—the ideals espoused by early (and even practised in the mid-period of the Internet in its past 30 years) seem to be evaporating, like The Candle in the Wind.

However, some of the principles for the design of the network are just that: principles. As in The Book of Merlin, the engineering design rules handed down from early Internet seem likely to last in future incantations. In particular, the end-to-end argument appears to continue to inform many design discussions, and I’ll finish some observations on its continued applicability.

This talk is part of the Microsoft Research Cambridge, public talks series.

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