The following article is an excerpt from the recently released Internet Analysis Report 2004 - Protocols and Governance. Full details of the argument for protocol reform can be found at 'Internet Mark 2 Project' website, where a copy of the Executive Summary can be downloaded free of charge. The report also comments on the response of governance bodies to these issues.
In releasing this section for comment, I would like to point out that the report's conclusions are based on a cumulative examination of various protocols and systems. We are at a point of time where other protocols and systems are equally problematic — the report points to some significant problems with DNS structure and scalability, and also points out that, to all intents and purposes, the basic email protocol, SMTP, is broken and needs immediate replacement.
As the report states, "There are many problems facing the Internet at the current time. Those closest to each problem are making substantial efforts in isolation from other major issues to address their particular problems, often however seeking short term fixes rather than longer-term solutions. A more coordinated approach across all areas seems necessary for resolution".
The Internet was developed in the 1970s and 1980s, initially as a means to connect mainframe computer systems for timesharing purposes. The system introduced for this fairly basic purpose has expanded to become a global multimedia information and communications system, connecting personal computers, phones, and hundreds of millions rather than the hundreds of devices originally foreseen.
Some of the significant developments not foreseen at the time of the original design include:
TCP/IP (or TCP and IP) have been described as the pair of protocols that make the Internet what it is. To purists, use of TCP/IP is the fundamental distinction that describes the Internet.
Essentially, TCP/IP describes system-neutral protocols for transportation of data across the internet between different systems.
Invented in the 1970's, largely adopted in the late 1980s, TCP/IP hit its first big problem in the early 1990s when it became apparent that the numbering system (see DNS section of the report) was going to run out of numbers in the foreseeable future. IPv6 was mooted as the means to address this problem.
IPv6 had its formal beginnings in 1991. Although other issues were involved, the numbering system was a major catalyst for activity.
Work then began on the next generation Internet protocol, and many issues were put on the table for discussion but eventually dismissed as the protocol took on a manageable form. Traffic prioritization was one thing that went by the board.
The first recommendations for the new protocol emerged in 1994. After some discussion they were finalized in 1995. It took till April 1996 to move much further forward, and to define the transition phases as to how the network would adopt the new protocols.
That might be regarded as the beginnings of an adoption phase — some five years after the need was agreed to. However, in 2004 — some 13 years after the problem was first worked on — implementation is at a low level. Not even the central root servers of the Internet had adopted the protocol by June 1994. No detailed analysis as to why adoption has been so slow appears to have been undertaken.
It appears that TCP/IP's main advantage is its capacity to scale backwards to existing old systems. Apart from that it appears to be in need of fairly significant modification for scaling to the future, where voice traffic, Internet television and other factors (see Future Needs section of the report) may demand a more sympathetic base protocol.
TCP (The Transport Control Protocol) in particular has come in for significant criticism, and a growing body of experts believe it will need to be replaced. Indeed, if it were easy to change a fundamental Internet Protocol this may have been done some time ago. It's the complexity of the change management problem that has delayed action rather than lack of recognized need for change.
Traffic Prioritization Issue
Although TCP/IP has proven to be remarkably robust, it may not scale to the future. In particular, TCP/IP does not know how to differentiate between traffic priorities (e.g. visiting a website requires a fairly immediate response as soon as we click on it, email delivery can wait a few seconds). This lack of prioritization is one of the major causes of the "slowness" of the Internet as perceived by users (real speed is something quite different and has a lot of other factors).
Unsuitability for Financial Transactions
As pointed out by Dr. Greg Adamson,
"A financial transactions architecture must be deterministic: the result of the transaction in the overwhelming majority of cases has to be what was meant, and when it is not there should be evidence of what went wrong. The design of the Internet protocol suite TCP/IP is non-deterministic. It aims to achieve overall reliability in a network, not necessarily individual reliability for each segment of that network. This concept of 'best effort' is core to the Internet's design and to an understanding of the Internet's flexibility. While the telephone network will reject an attempt to connect if the destination is unavailable (a busy signal), the Internet will send information out in the hope of success, by design (best effort). There are many methods for overcoming the limitations that this creates, including within the TCP protocol itself, but the design choice of 'connect if a full service available' or 'make every effort to get any part of the message through' remains. The original design specification states:
[The Internet Protocol has] no mechanisms to augment end-to-end data reliability, flow control, sequencing, or other services commonly found in host-to-host protocols. The internet protocol can capitalize on the services of its supporting networks to provide various types and qualities of service (Postel 1981)."
There are also security issues with TCP/IP, with researchers warning of vulnerabilities that need to be addressed. In April 2004, a major alert was issued to deal with a fundamental vulnerability.
Users of large scale sites are already experiencing problems with the protocol, which tends to suggest that ordinary users will become affected in the near future, as bandwidth and processing availability continues to grow.
TCP — if not TCP/IP — needs to be replaced, probably within a five to ten year time frame. The major issue to overcome is the migration issues (see below)
The problem of a new TCP is as complex (if not more so) that the TCPIPv4/v6 changeover which the Internet community has found very hard to deal with.
However, the factors in slow IPv6 deployment largely revolve around the fact that there is no communicated compelling reason to change. Given that a point of time will arise when changes to TCP are necessary for basic performance, it can be expected that, if a migration is conducted with appropriate change management planning, the adoption will be far quicker and far smoother than the IPv6 changeover. However, some basic factors need to be taken into account:
The efforts to change TCP/IP must continue, and in the medium term appear to need to take on additional momentum. The efforts need to be considered in the light of other major protocol problems, so that a more coherent approach to protocol reform or replacement emerges.
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