Today I attended a lecture: Challenges and Opportunities for Tomorrow’s Networks by Nick Feamster.
Nick began the talk by setting the stage, enumerating trends that are rapidly and dramatically changing the Internet. More people will come online, that those people will represent a greater part of the globe, there are more things on the network and wireless access has increased. Before turning to other aspects of the talk, I want to pause and consider the global piece. I agree with the argument Nick was making, but then saw myself comparing it with some of the rhetoric that has accompanied the Internet for years. For example, calling it the possibility of creating a “global village.” Nick reminded me of how decidedly un-global that the Internet has been. But it may now become so. We’ll know when English ceases to be the dominant language of the Internet. Chinese, which makes sense, is gaining significant ground.
There were some things I expected to hear about in the talk. One I did not was about the struggles that the Networking community have. I had no idea, of course, because I’m in HCI where we’re never suffered from any legitimacy issues concerning whether we were an appropriate discipline within Computer Science. I’m being sarcastic of course.
I’m not sure I’m doing complete justice to Nick’s arguments, but here’s my version anyway. What I heard might be characterised as a success disaster. What does an academic research community do when something, in the case of Networking it’s the Internet, is very successful and much of the innovation comes from industry. If HCI has Apple, Networking has CISCO. Of course HCI doesn’t have the Internet, it just has millions of people repurposing and using all sorts of technologies in all sorts of ways for all sorts of things. They do it whether or not we say it’s useful or even usable (text messaging on a cellphone for example), and we have to understand why.
He shared some examples of the concerns levelled at Networking. Networking, like HCI, and unlike Theory, does’t have open problems (let alone ones you can rank in order). It seems to me that both disciplines are shaped by the relentless evolution of the network and the applications (and threats) atop it. This strikes me as being true of HCI. HCI went home because technology designed for the office wound up there because people wanted to try it out. We can not easily predict the future, whether it be the network or the human-application and increasingly human-network interaction. And to try to structure the discipline as if we could is like banging a square peg into a round hole. Rather than having open problems that remain open over time because they can, we have problems that open up because of the constantly and mutually shaping relationship between technology and society.
So, networking applications and threats co-evolve. Testing new technologies is also challenging for networking. It’s hard to build a representative infrastructure inside academia, although we at Georgia Tech are insanely lucky to have the Office of Information Technology (OIT) who support the campus and all of its networked functions but also have an orientation to and engagement with the research side of networking. Nick highlighted that, and I agree, and just want to provide a shout out to OIT.
The majority of the talk was Nick presenting his approach to moving the field of Networking forward. I’m not going to do justice to software defined networking, so instead I refer the reader to his blog. I’ll just say that he’s built an amazing set of collaborations, with students and colleagues. Even if I hadn’t learnt about all the other things I did, I left with something new to think about and it was a great Imlay lecture.