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Vint Cerf on IPv6, home networks, extraterrestrial Internet, more

Full transcript, and a few thoughts, from my Q&A with the networking pioneer who serves as Google's Internet Evangelist.

Vint Cerf takes his title of Chief Internet Evangelist for Google seriously. He is knee deep in several projects to bring the next versions of the “Internet” into the world, or in some cases, into the solar system. These include a new extraterrestrial Internet, (the so-called “InterPlanetary Internet”) and pushing for worldwide IPv6 adoption.

On Sunday, I had the pleasure of a one-on-one interview with Vint after his keynote at the annual Digital Broadband Migration conference in Boulder, CO. As promised, this blog post contains the full text transcript of the interview.  My live blog written during the conference touched on many of the most intriguing statements from his keynote speech (and from the keynote that followed, from Federal CTO Aneesh Chopra).

If you haven’t heard Vint speak in a while, I highly recommend it. He is always informative and funny. The Broadband Migration Conference is put on by the law school at Colorado University, so the room was a mix of technologists, students, lawyers and government folks – all of whom laughed on queue during Vint’s talks.

After speaking with him, I walked away feeling optimistic over the next era of communication technology and how it will transform our lives. I sometimes wonder how I would describe the modern world to someone from 100 years ago. How do you explain to someone from 1911 that the telephone and “Steampunk” era would lead to instantaneous worldwide communications with the power to topple suppressed regimes?

One area that Vint talked about extensively in his speech, but which I didn’t get a chance to discuss with him much during our meeting, was the Internet of Things, now manifesting as sensor networks. (See YouuTube video interview I took at CSA from the Zigbee demo booth.) As IPv6 rolls out, we will gain the address space to create home sensor networks, where everyday objects can monitor themselves and send us messages when things go awry.  No one can predict where this technology will lead. But as the objects in our homes get “smarter” human inventiveness will no doubt come up with who-woudda-thought new uses. With the fast pace of change, we will see that happen in our lives, perhaps in the next 10 years.  

It’s an exciting time to be part of the IT industry making it all happen, but then, I’ll bet that dude from 1911 felt the same way.

The full interview is also available as a podcast: Podcast: Q&A with Vint Cerf on future of IP, cloud and Interplanetary Internet

Is there, will there be, an IPv7 and what new problems will it solve? (Or, since we don’t seem to like odd numbered IP protocols, will we skip right to 8 and what will it cover?)

There once was during the period of time when we were trying to figure out what to do about expanding in the address space. There were actually four proposals that were made. And those were eventually made and those were narrowed down to one. So actually, 7, 8, 9, don’t exist. At the moment there doesn’t seem to be any incentive for inventing yet another one. Now the whole problem is to get IPv6 distributed and widely implemented before we literally run out of IPv4 address space. That shouldn’t stop anyone from thinking about new ways of redesigning the Internet.

In fact there’s a “clean sheet” effort taking place at Stanford University, supported by the National Science Foundation, to look at how would we design the Internet today knowing all the things that we already know about it. Whether or not that produces anything remains to be seen, but at least one concrete outcome has been an “openflow router” which handles packets in a different way than traditional routers. But as far as I know there aren’t any new plans for IP-level protocol changes, someday there will be I’m sure.

Will the public/average consumer ever need to make sure all of their home devices (routers, etc.) speak IPv6 … or will NAT and carrier’s efforts to bridge IPv4 to IPv6 be enough for the coming decade?

No, it won’t be enough and I am not a big fan of carrier-grade network address translation. Part of the reason is the whole notion of network address translation is brittle and it doesn’t permit servers to be available on the consumer premises. In the days when Internet is highly asymmetric, where you can download traffic faster than you can upload it, putting a server at home is something the broadband providers don’t like very much because it consumers a lot of uplink broadband capacity. But with the passage of time, I believe it will be not only desirable, but quite natural, to have servers at home in addition to having use of the cloud. So symmetric capacity and IPv6 are a very attractive outcome, so I’m not a big fan of carrier-grade NATs but it may turn out that NATs are needed in order to facilitate the transition during this period when we have to run both protocols.

Do you think IPv6 in the home is as urgent as it is in the business network?

I think it’s urgent in that if we don’t get both protocols running at the same time, the day may come when there are servers that can only run IPv6 or there maybe users who can only run IPv6 and couldn’t get anything else, because the NAT boxes ran out. I think it’s important to get both protocols running smoothly at home. Already laptops and desktops have the capability. It’s usually firewall, the NAT box and maybe the broadband modem that you have at home that haven’t been configured for IPv6. So when we turn on IPv6  on a worldwide bases on June 8 as a 24-hour test (World IPv6 Day), I’m sure there will be things that don’t work and those need to be addressed (no pun intended). I would much rather see a concerted effort to get everybody up and running on IPv6 and then the transition is smooth at that point because it doesn’t matter if the destination is running IPv4 or 6, everyone can talk to everyone. That would be the desirable income.

About a year ago, you began speaking about a concept he called the "InterPlanetary Internet" … stretching IP so that it can handle an Internet that reaches outer space. You are still talking about. What tidbit can you give other network engineers about it that would make them say wow?

It’s happening. It’s not using the Internet Protocol. It’s using the new Bundle Protocol that was developed as part of the more general notion of delay-and-disruption tolerant network.We recognized as far back as 1998 that the traditional Internet design had implicit in it the assumption that there was good connectivity, and relatively low latency. Whereas in a space environment, when you are talking at interplanetary distances, you have speed of light delays to worry about, and those can be minutes to hours to days. So the normal, very interactive protocol designs of the Internet don’t work. We can certainly run Internet on the surface of the planet just like we do here on Earth. We can run it inside the spacecraft. We can run it in wireless sensor networks. We can even run it between spacecraft that are nearby.

But we need this new Bundle Protocol to overcome the latencies and all the disconnects that occur in space, partly because of celestial motion, partly because of communication, satellites orbiting that can’t be seen.

The Bundle protocols are running onboard the International Space Station. They are running in a number of locations around the United States in the NASA labs. They are running in academic environments. There’s a thing called the Bundle Bone, which is like the IPv6 backbone, that is linking a lot of these research activities to one another. There’s at least one, rather experimental implementation of the Bundle protocol for the Android operating system, but its not production quality, so it really needs to be redone/revisited.

We have uploaded the protocol to a spacecraft called EPOXI, used to be called Deep Impact spacecraft – it fired a penetrator into a comet a few years ago in order to expose the interior for spectrographic analysis so we could see what materials made up the comet. That was a very successful mission. The spacecraft is still in orbit around the sun and it just visited the Comet Hartley 2 Comet in November, 2010. We’ve uploaded the Interplanetary protocols to that spacecraft and we’ve done testing of the protocols at approximately 80 light seconds. We will hopefully upload the most recent versions of the protocols to that spacecraft.

So during 2011, our initiative is to ‘space qualify’ the interplanetary protocols in order to standardize them and make them available to all the space-faring countries. If they chose to adopt the protocols, then potentially every spacecraft launched from that time on is potentially interwoven from a communications point of view. But perhaps more import, when the spacecraft have finished their primary missions, if they are still functionally operable – they have power, computer, communications – they can become nodes in an interplanetary backbone. So what can happen over time, is that we can literally grow an interplanetary network that can support both man and robotic exploration.

Part of the motivation for all of this is that most of the space exploration up until has been supported by point-to-point radio links. We see much more complex missions needing a richer communications environment. We also found, that because of the delay and disruption, we can get more data back from the scientific mission.

Google has been engaged in numerous projects to "speed up the Internet" … a public DNS server, ChromeOS and lots of work at the protocol level, such as the new Internet protocol called SPDY. Should we be paying attention to SPDY and are there many others supporting it besides Google?

Yes, you should pay attention. These are efforts by Google to make more efficient the implementations of the Internet. A lot of this stuff is available through open source.  You don’t need very many people at Google to make something happen that’s what’s so cool about Google. You have a little ‘Sherpa Team’ that actually does this work.

You’ve publicly discussed your own home sensor network that alerts you when your wine cellar gets too hot or dry. You said it was built with using technology from Arch Rock, acquired by Cisco in September. Is it Zigbee or Z-wave or something else?

It’s actually 802.15.4, 6LoWPAN.  It’s a 6LoWPAN network running on IPv6.

There used to be a lot of talk about the Semantic Web … is it still hot … or not?

Well, I don’t know if its still hot. I can tell you that Tim Berners-Lee is still very, very determined. He calls it deep linking now and its related to how you identify data in the network in such a way that you can converge or conjoin coming from disparate sources and still make sense of it. My impression is that it’s a tough slog and its been going for about a decade now. But Tim’s been successful in the past, so I would not rule this out as a potential positive outcome, but it’s a long haul.

Last year, you were talking a lot about cloud standards, and now it looks like OpenStack has got a groundswell of support (that’s the Rackspace one). What are your thoughts on that? Can you declare it a winner?

I would not declare it a winner yet and it’s not because I have any preference for something else.  By my count, there must be 25 or 30 different groups that are looking at cloud-based standards. The real issue is going to be implementation and testing. Until we have some serious experience in getting clouds to interact with each other in various ways, I think we won’t know what works and what doesn’t. All of these efforts are laudable, but they are also going to have to prove themselves in the real world before we can declare any winner.  There’s a real question of what functionality we’re looking for.

Egypt, the government “kill switch” I get the sense that this is not something you would approve of, giving government the ability to turn the Internet off. Is there a technological solution to prevent governments from being able to turn it off?

Remember, the Internet runs on a substrate and if the substrate is controllable by the government, it’s possible to turn off the Internet. If we ever get to the point where mesh networking and let’s say, peer-wise, point-to-point interactions can be done without benefit of things like routers provided by Internet Service providers – if you can build pieces of Internet that sort of self assemble. Governments will control what they can control if they want to, and so the only solution around that is to have a network that is self organizing. And technology is available to do that.

What do you see as the next major consumer use for the Internet?

If I knew that, I would be investing in it. But I think its pretty clear that social networking is a pretty big part of that. The platforms that are available that allow people to create their own content and share it is probably the most important avenue. The next one will be this Internet of Things where we start managing collections of devices for our benefit. At some point third parties will figure out that they can come in and manage stuff for us. Our entertainment systems might be managed by a third-party who doesn’t have anything to do with the content, and simply provides organizing capacity, so we can make sure all of our entertainment material shows up on all the platforms where we want it.

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