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The Internet Infrastructure: Stability vs. Innovation

Stratton Sclavos of VeriSign distills the essence of the SiteFinder controversy in his CNet interview:

“The reason Site Finder became such a lightening rod is that it goes to the question: Are we going to be in a position to do innovation on this infrastructure, or are we going to be locked into obsolete thinking that the DNS was never intended to do anything other than what it was originally supposed to do?”

There is a subtle but essential misunderstanding here. Innovation can and should happen in Internet infrastructure, but there are a handful of core elements that must remain open and radically simple if the Internet is to remain, well, the Internet. These include TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, BIND, BGP, and the DNS (especially the .com registry). Any change in these protocols should be very carefully vetted through a consensus-based process.

The key issue that Stratton misses is that a few simple and non-proprietary core connectivity protocols make innovation possible elsewhere. Take Internet routing, for example. Akamai and its competitors built content-delivery networks that fundamentally changed the way a high percentage of Internet traffic moves through the network. But they did it on top of the core protocols, which remain unchanged. Innovation took place, but without breaking the fundamental underpinnings of the open Internet.

The debate about spam, where many people are proposing mandatory authentication as a solution, illustrates the same confusion. Breaking email to fix spam is like breaking the DNS to “fix” mistyped domain names. That’s why I like Tim Bray’s suggestion to use relay servers for spam prevention. Like Akamai, it leaves the basic infrastructure unchanged.

Lack of innovation at one level promotes innovation at another level. As long as the global Internet community knows that SMTP, IP, and the domain name system will remain stable, it can build wonderful new things that leverage that base. At the same time, the guardians of the core infrastructure, which includes large network owners, VeriSign, and standards bodies, can focus their energies on ensuring that the infrastructure can scale. Because the DNS today does do something different than it was designed for: it supports a global network used by billions of people and facilitating billions of dollars in economic activity. And that’s the greatest innovation of all.

By Kevin Werbach, Professor at the Wharton School and Organizer of the Supernova Conference

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martin paljak  –  Jan 7, 2004 10:15 PM

> These include TCP/IP, SMTP, HTTP, BIND, BGP, and the DNS (especially the .com registry).

I’d say there’s a fundamental flaw in this sentence: a protocol implementation (bind) in the list of protocols. (tcp/ip, smtp, http, bgp)

Also, the Internet is a fancy project, where normal upgrades and refactorings are not possible, or very hard to manage - but dwelling on stuff that was built decades of years and several digital generations ago is not normal. For example, there are several things in dns that was OK back in 1980s (max udp package size, really freaky name packing and bitfields) but really not reasonable now. One can’t build a Ferrari from an old Trabant by adding pieces of a new Ferrari to it. Eventually the cartong of the trabant will collapse under the weight of ferrari addons attached to it. The same goes with dns (and other core networking protocols). We live in the world where bandwidth can handle both bytes and kilobytes, processor cycles are cheaper than programmers - so counting bits and programming in assembler for maximum performance is not very wise. Internet is global and unicode is common - although the IDN hack is a smart hackup and it’s good to make money from it while it’s still possible. The breakthrough has to come sometime soon - when i can send a ‘TODO note’ (xml)  in russian letters(unicode), to my business parnters mobile phone (what i located using dns) over the ipv6 network.

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