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MIT panel warns of challenges of hyper-networked world

MIT panel says demand on the Internet, massive-growth of wireless nets and general lack of security are but a few of the future challenges pressing on the world's information infrastructure

By , Network World
March 01, 2013 06:02 AM ET

Network World - A panel discussion held at MIT this week hailed major advances in networking technology, but warned that the challenges facing the world's information infrastructure are severe.

Most of the challenges stem from the rapid multiplication of demand, both in terms of user devices and data, according to IDC analyst Rohit Mehra, who moderated the MIT Forum discussion, which was held at the Tang Center for Management Education and entitled "Can the networks deliver?" Mehra was joined on the panel by Boston University professor Mark Crovella, Akamai chief strategist Kristofer Alexander and Veniam Works principal Roy Russell.

"We're now starting to talk about not millions any more, when we talk about user devices that are in play, but billions," said Mehra. "Of late, in the industry, we've started talking about how many devices versus how many human beings on the planet."

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And it's not just the proliferation of smartphones and tablets contributing to skyrocketing growth in the total number of network-connected devices, according to Mehta. The oft-cited phenomenon of the "Internet of things" - which refers to the growth of network connectivity in objects that weren't previously online - means that there could be as many as 30 billion network devices installed worldwide by 2020.

Even though a huge number of those devices are likely to be connected cars or refrigerators or traffic lights, Akamai's Alexander said that a substantial amount of the total increase in demand in the future is a product of the growing ratio of devices to people.

In 2005, he said, there were a little more than a billion Internet users and 1.5 billion connected devices online. In 2010, those numbers changed to 1.8 billion and 5 billion, respectively, and projections for 2015 indicate that they could increase to 2.9 billion and a whopping 15 billion.

"There's an explosion of endpoints going on," Alexander said.

And while a rise in peak connection speeds might give the appearance of supply keeping up with demand, he said, it's important to look closer.

"That would be all well and nice if applications and devices had a concept that they aren't the only application or device at work," Alexander said. "Any time any application fires up, whether it's Netflix, email or a software update, it assumes it's pretty much the only thing that needs resourcing. It asks for as much as it can take, and you end up with network contention."

There are undoubted upsides to this hyper-connected world, and panelist Russell of Veniam Works, is part of the phenomenon. Veniam is a vehicular networking startup, which plans to bring a type of mesh network to the road that can connect and disconnect almost instantaneously, turning traffic into a nest of Wi-Fi hotspots for in-car connectivity and a host of other potential applications.

"We had a research project ... where they monitored bus drivers' vital signs and connected that data back to the network," Russell said. "They had GPS on the bus ... and they could tell where and when the bus drivers were stressed as they were driving."

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