20 kick-ass network research projects

Website morphing, sleep talking PCs, undetectable phishing attacks and unfreezing software among IT researchers' coolest projects

While start-up funding and the emergence of exciting new network startups has fizzled over the past year, research projects at university and other labs continue to sizzle. Here's look at 20 of the coolest:

Plotting a cheap, distributed zero-day worm defense 

Shutting down zero-day computer attacks could be carried out inexpensively by peer-to-peer software that shares information about anomalous behavior, say researchers at the University of California at Davis. The software would interact with existing personal firewalls and intrusion detection systems to gather data about anomalous behavior, says Senthil Cheetancheri, the lead researcher on the project he undertook as a grad student at UC Davis from 2004 to 2007. The software would share this data with randomly selected peer machines to determine how prevalent the suspicious activity was, he says. If many machines experience the identical traffic, that increases the likelihood that it represents a new attack for which the machines have no signature. The specific goal would be to detect self-propagating worms that conventional security products have not seen before.

MIT's sticky notes killer (though they say it isn't) 

MIT computer science professor David Karger's research team has developed software dubbed List.it that's designed to computerize many of the things people currently do through sticky notes: organize email addresses, passwords and the like. The software lives in your Firefox browser and can be downloaded here. The software comes out of MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL), a perennial hotbed for IT inventions. "I would never make the claim that we're trying to replace Post-its," says Michael Bernstein, a graduate student in Karger's lab. "We want to understand the classes of things people do with Post-its and see if we can help users do more of what they wanted to do in the first place."

Researchers devise undetectable phishing attack 

With the help of about 200 Sony Playstations, an international team of security researchers have devised a way to undermine the algorithms used to protect secure Web sites and launch a nearly undetectable phishing attack. To do this, they've exploited a bug in the digital certificates used by Web sites to prove that they are who they claim to be. By taking advantage of known flaws in the MD5 hashing algorithm used to create some of these certificates, the researchers were able to hack VeriSign's RapidSSL.com certificate authority and create fake digital certificates for any Web site on the Internet. Although the researchers believe that a real-world attack using their techniques is unlikely, they say that their work shows that the MD5 hashing algorithm should no longer be used by the certificate authority companies that issue digital certificates. "It's a wake-up call for anyone still using MD5," said David Molnar a Berkeley graduate student who worked on the project.

Website Morphing 

Web sites that automatically customize themselves for each visitor so they come across as more appealing or simply less annoying can boost sales for online businesses by close to 20%, MIT research says. These sites adapt to display information so everyone who visits sees a version best suited to their preferred style of absorbing information, say the four researchers who wrote about such sites in "Website Morphing", a paper published in Marketing Science last year. So the site might play an audio file and present graphics to one visitor, but present the same information as text to the next depending on each person's cognitive style. Morphing sites deduce that style from the decisions visitors make as they click through pages on the site.

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Making quantum computers a reality 

Researchers in the U.K. and the U.S. published a paper detailing discoveries that might bring a fully functional quantum computer one step closer to reality. Quantum computing, which has been researched for decades, has traditionally had a problem of keeping data in a coherent format, making it difficult to run programs or computing tasks. The researchers have found a way to preserve electrons, which store the data, longer, which allows a system to process data more coherently and run programs more effectively. The group's research focused on phosphorus atoms in silicon. The best attempts previously have flowed a current past the electrons via small electrical wires, but that has brought in a lot of quantum noise, removing a key advantage of the material.

Separately, researchers from Toshiba and Cambridge University's Cavendish Laboratory are reporting a breakthrough they say could make quantum cryptography a reality in the near-term. The gist of the research is that they've come up with a much less complicated way (a "decoy protocol" generated using a laser and a compact detector) to support quantum cryptography, one that does not rely on cryogenic cooling or complicated optical configurations.

Making your PC talk in its sleep 

Microsoft and University of California, San Diego researchers have developed a device they say can save on energy costs by enabling end users to put their computers into a "sleep talking" mode that falls somewhere in between awake and sleep modes. They say it could save 60% to 80% on energy usage. The USB device, dubbed Somniloquy, features a low-power processor that works at the PC's network interface level on wired and wireless networks. It boasts an embedded operating system and flash memory, and disguises itself as a sleeping PC to other systems on a network. But it can also wake up the actual PC in times of need, such as if a large file is coming in.

Separately, University of Liverpool researchers have developed software called PowerDown that they say could save big organizations close to $17K per month simply by automating the shutoff of computer systems not being used. 

Giving the boot to rebooting PCs 

NSF-funded researchers are applying ultra-thin ferroelectric materials found on ATM and other smart cards to computers, with hopes that one day this could result in low-power/high-speed memory devices and computers that turn on faster. The researchers, from Cornell University, Penn State University and Northwestern University, reported their findings in the journal Science on April 17 in an article titled "A Ferroelectric Oxide Made Directly on Silicon." The researchers have put strontium titanate on silicon in such a way that the material has been "squeezed into a ferroelectric state," according to the NSF. More research needs to be done to develop faster booting computers, but the researchers are encouraged by initial results.

Violent video games good for your eyesight 

More evidence that video games are good for you: A Tel Aviv University and University of Rochester researchers have found that playing violent video games can improve teens' vision. In particular, the games (such as first-person shooter games) have been found to help players train their brains to better discern subtle differences in color or shades of gray. "We think that the games are taking the brain's visual cortex to the limits, forcing it to adapt to the added stimuli of the action games," said Uri Polat of Tel Aviv University's Goldschlager Eye Institute, in a statement.

Another recent study out of Michigan State University found that video games could deliver skills to players that could help them perform delicate acts such as surgery. In fact, one researcher suggested that the fact more boys play video games gives them an upper hand over girls in this area.

Another recent study found that the tools used to build 3D shooter games can also be applied to designing systems to help people evacuate burning buildings.

Defining cloud computing obstacles and opportunities 

UC Berkeley researchers have outlined their view of cloud computing, which they say has great opportunity to exploit unprecedented IT resources if vendors can overcome a litany of obstacles.The 11 researchers' cloud computing forecast is documented in a paper called "Above the Clouds: A Berkeley View of Cloud Computing." The research group works in the Reliable Adaptive Distributed Systems Laboratory (RAD Lab), a 3-year-old outfit funded by companies such as Google, Microsoft, IBM and Sun. "We argue that the construction and operation of extremely large-scale, commodity-computer datacenters at low-cost locations was the key necessary enabler of Cloud Computing," they write.

But to take full advantage of the opportunity, vendors need to rethink the way they build their products. Application developers need to ensure their offerings can not only scale up, but scale down quickly to satisfy the needs of customers who resort to cloud computing to meet short-term needs. Developers of applications and infrastructure software also need pay-as-you-go licensing models that conform to the reality of cloud computing. Makers of infrastructure software must also craft products designed to run on virtual machines, a foundation technology in large-scale data centers used by cloud computing suppliers.

Researchers tout wireless microgrippers 

In the not-too-distant future, your surgeon may be someone who -- instead of wielding a scalpel -- injects you with a flock of dust-sized wireless devices that grab and remove infected or damaged tissue in response to chemical signals. These microgrippers, less than 1/254th of an inch (1/10th of a millimeter) in diameter, have been developed by researchers at John Hopkins University, and tested in biopsy-like procedures with animal tissue. One writer described them as working like a hand: a "palm" surrounded by six "fingers" that can open and close around an object. The crab-like devices are moved and guided by external magnets, and grab or release in response to non-toxic biochemicals or temperature changes.

Arizona State, HP dare you to break their electronic displays 

HP and Arizona State University researchers have introduced the first prototype of a paper-like computer display made mostly from plastic that has a lot going for it: it's affordable, flexible and takes it easy on the power. Applications could include electronic paper and signage, according to the two outfits. The displays are based on self-aligned imprint lithography (SAIL) technology from HP Labs. Other organizations, such as DuPont Jeijin Films and E Ink, also made possible the first prototype.

Researchers target software freezes with "Gadara" 

University of Michigan researchers have devised a controller they say can anticipate when software programs might freeze up in order to make sure they don't. This issue is becoming more important than ever as multicore and shared systems crank up the number of processes being handled at any time. Their Gadara system uses feedback techniques comparable to those used by cruise control in cars as well as control logic, and is designed to fix things without needing to have the original programmer get involved. “This is a totally different approach to what people had done before for deadlock. Previously, engineers would try to identify potential deadlocks through testing or program analysis and then go back and rewrite the program. The bug fixes were manual, and not automatic. Gadara automates the process,” said Stéphane Lafortune, a professor in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and a Gadara developer.

Talk-powered cell phones? Nanoscale piezoelectrics could make it real 

It's possible that in the future your voice conversations on your cell phone could generate enough electrical power to run the phone, without batteries. And not just phones. The technology, which converts mechanical stress like vibrations into electrical energy, could power a whole range of low-power mobile devices and sensors. That's one possible outcome of recent work by a team of Texas A&M and University of Houston researchers, who appear to have discovered that by building a certain type of piezoelectric material to a specific thickness (about 21 nanometers, compared to a typical human hair of 100,000 nanometers), you can boost its energy production by 100 percent.

Building brainier computers 

IBM Research  is working to bring the brain's processing power to computers, in an effort to make it easier for PCs to process vast amounts of data in real time. The researchers want to put brain-related senses like perception and interaction into hardware and software so that computers are able to process and understand the data quicker while consuming less power, said Dharmendra Modha, a researcher at IBM. The researchers are bringing the neuroscience, nanotechnology and supercomputing fields together in an effort to create the new computing platform, he said. The goal is to create machines that are mind-like and adapt to changes, which could allow companies to find more value in their data. Right now, a majority of information's value is lost, but relevant data can allow businesses or individuals to make rapid decisions in time to have significant impact, he said. "If we could design computers that could be in real-world environments and sense and respond in an intelligent way, it would be a tremendous step forward," Modha said.

Researchers show off advanced network control technology 

Researchers can adjust network infrastructure to boost bandwidth, optimize latency and save power using an experimental technology called OpenFlow. OpenFlow is in the proof-of-concept stage but someday could be used in business networks to engineer traffic, says Nick McKeown, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford University. OpenFlow is part of the Clean Slate initiative set up to consider how the Internet might be re-engineered to make it more responsive to how it is actually used. Researchers devised OpenFlow as a way to test out new network protocols on existing networks without disrupting production applications. The only other option is to set up separate infrastructure on which to run experiments, a costly alternative.

Open source laptop Lojack system released by university researchers

A new open source tool called Adeona has been released by researchers at two universities in an effort to recover lost or stolen laptops on campus, at airports and elsewhere. Adeona, in fact, is named after the Roman goddess of safe returns.University of Washington and University of California, San Diego researchers say the tool enables laptop owners to track the whereabouts of their Windows, Apple and Linux machines without letting anyone else know. Once Adeona is loaded on a machine, it will every so often send scrambled information such as IP address to OpenDHT, a free online storage network, that can be used to determine a laptop's general location. On Macs, Adeona can even exploit the internal camera to take pictures to send to the OpenDHT server.The information could then be used by cops to try to track down the machine.

New router algorithm offers hope for old routers 

A team of computer scientists has proposed a new algorithm that makes routers operate more efficiently by automatically limiting the number of network route or link-state updates they receive. The algorithm could be important in large heterogeneous corporate networks where the oldest, slowest routers make all the others wait while they absorb updates and recalculate their path tables. The Approximate Link State (XL) algorithm suppresses the updates so only those routers that are directly affected receive them, says Professor Stephan Savage, who along with three other computer scientists at the University of California at San Diego developed the algorithm.

Separately, researchers at Cornell University and AT&T Labs are breathing new life into routers via a method they say doesn't require changes to routing software or protocols. In a paper titled “Making Routers Last Longer with ViAggre,” the researchers outline Virtual Aggregation (ViAggre), which they describe as a configuration-only approach to squeezing ISPs' routing tables that works in part by limiting the how much of the global routing table each router maintains. It also is an incremental approach that can be executed by individual ISPs without the need to synch up with others, the researchers explain. The researchers examined how ViAggre would work on tier 1 and 2 ISPs' networks and found that routing tables could be reduced drastically without loading them down with traffic. They also gave ViAggre a whirl on Cisco routers in a testbed.

A way to sniff keystrokes from thin air 

That PC keyboard you're using may be giving away your passwords. Researchers say they've discovered new ways to read what you're typing by aiming special wireless or laser equipment at the keyboard or by simply plugging into a nearby electrical socket. Two separate research teams, from the Ecole Polytechnique Federale de Lausanne and security consultancy Inverse Path, have taken a close look at the electromagnetic radiation that is generated every time a computer keyboard is tapped. It turns out that this keystroke radiation is actually pretty easy to capture and decode -- if you're a computer hacker-type, that is. The Ecole Polytechnique team did its work over the air. Using an oscilloscope and an inexpensive wireless antenna, the team was able to pick up keystrokes from virtually any keyboard, including laptops.

Squeezing storage

Nanotechnology researchers say they have achieved a breakthrough that could fit the contents of 250 DVDs on a coin-sized surface and might also have implications for displays and solar cells. The scientists, from the University of California at Berkeley and the University of Massachusetts Amherst, discovered a way to make certain kinds of molecules line up in perfect arrays over relatively large areas.. One of the researchers said the technology might be commercialized in less than 10 years, if industry is motivated. 

Separately, Computerworld reported that “researchers at Rice University have demonstrated a new data storage medium made out of a layer of graphite only 10 atoms thick. The technology could potentially provide many times the capacity of current flash memory and withstand temperatures of 200 degrees Celsius and radiation that would make solid-state disk memory disintegrate.” 

Researchers seek advanced network prioritization, security technology 

Researchers are looking to build self-configuring network technology that would identify traffic, let the network infrastructure prioritize it down to the end user, reallocate bandwidth between users or classes of users, and automatically make quality of service decisions. The system will have a minimum of 32 levels of prioritization. These prioritization levels will be configurable and changeable at the system level in an authenticated method. Data with a higher priority will be handled more expeditiously than traffic with a lower priority. If that sounds like a major undertaking, it is, but consider who wants to develop such a beast: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

This advanced prioritization system is part of DARPA's Military Networking Protocol (MNP) program which is looking to develop an authenticated and attributable identification system for packet based, military and government data networks, the agency said. Military or government data sent with the MNP will be compatible with normal Internet equipment to allow MNP traffic to pass through legacy network or encryption equipment, DARPA said.

IDG News Service contributed to this report.

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