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How blockchain will manage networks

News Analysis
Mar 07, 20193 mins
Cloud SecurityNetwork Management SoftwareNetworking

Ethernet networking technology is inherently insecure and hard to manage. To address that, researchers say a blockchain approach to network management is needed. The Marconi Foundation says it has the answer.

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Credit: Iaremenko / Getty Images

Ethernet networking technology is flawed, say some engineers. The problem is it doesn’t have any inherent security built in to it. Ethernet also hard to manage because it’s centralized. It’s out-of-date, and it needs revamping, researchers say.

One attempt to address the issue is the Marconi protocol, which is a strategy to shift network and packet management over to a smart-contract, decentralized chain-based system. Smart contracts are trackable, verifiable transactions. They’re performed through encrypted blockchains and are self-enforcing.

Networking at the data-link level, not just simply the digital traffic and transactions, could be managed by infrastructure-level blockchain, say the folks behind the new protocol. Traffic auditing within network routing could be one of the main uses. Other benefits might be a trickle-down to security in the voids between clouds, addressing the issue of gaps that are common with a disparate cloud mix. If successful, delicately configured security in routers and switches will become redundant.

“Ethernet has no encryption built into its design,” says the Marconi Foundation in its white paper introducing the ideas. “This exposes raw network packets.”

The foundation says this data-link visibility doesn’t make any sense when much of the internet is now all about privacy and transactional security. “Network security protocols operate at several layers higher up the stack, while Ethernet remains insecure,” it says.

Another thing that’s not adding up, the group points out in the paper, is that all blockchain development projects (of which they say there are 1,900 in a $200 billion blockchain ecosystem) are strangely running on insecure Ethernet. The whizz-bang “decentralized future” is actually running on an insecure layer. That’s another reason to update to a smart contract-run network stack. The researchers believe that packet-level encryption would be more secure than existing SSL and TLS.

How smart packets would protect the network

The group says the way to handle the shift is to introduce decentralized apps that would have access to the network packets. The apps then run the network and perform the security roles, thus eliminating hardware, which they point out is expensive and needs continual tweaking.

Smart Packet Contracts would protect the network from intrusions and so on, and a “Marconi Pipe” would be the channel. It provides the routing and processing. While it’s actually at the data-link OSI Layer 2 (switches, bridges in terms of hardware; and MAC and Ethernet in terms of protocols), it can also overlay on other infrastructure, such as wireless. A barter system, where network resources can be traded for compute resources, say, rounds out the concept. Monitization could indeed be introduced.

Another angle is securing the multiple cloud-based systems running in enterprise. It’s a “challenge to make sure [multi-cloud] communication is secure and safe from attacks such as eavesdropping or ‘man in the middle,'” Jong Kim, chief architect of Marconi Foundation and Network World contributor, said in a VentureBeat article in January. “A common network where each connection point securely peers with every other point, regardless of cloud provider or container instance” could be provided with an Ethernet-layer blockchain.

Network administration and security apps, as well as dynamic networks where network activity needs to be recorded in a ledger for review — say in a disaster scenario or battlefield, could also be areas to explore, the Marconi Foundation suggests.


Patrick Nelson was editor and publisher of the music industry trade publication Producer Report and has written for a number of technology blogs. Nelson wrote the cult-classic novel Sprawlism.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Patrick Nelson and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications, Inc., its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.