DARPA takes aim at IT sacred cows

ANAHEIM, Calif.'Now that the Defense Department is embracing network-driven warfare, it is taking a hard look at radically improving, or discarding altogether, some fundamental computer and network architectures.

Flaws in the basic building blocks of networking and computer science are hampering reliability, limiting flexibility and creating security vulnerabilities, program managers said this week at the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's DARPATech conference.

Among the IT holy grails that DARPA wants to see revamped are the Internet Protocol, the seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection model'which defines how devices communicate on today's networks'and the von Neumann architecture, the basic design style underpinning almost all computers built today.

Many military commanders have been slow to adapt IT for critical tasks because they sense the equipment is unreliable, said Col. Tim Gibson. He is a program manager for DARPA's Advanced Technology Office, which is leading efforts to radically redefine computer architecture.

'You go to Wal-Mart and buy a telephone for less than $10 and you expect it to work,' Gibson said. Yet people usually do not expect the same of their computers. 'We don't expect computers to work, we expect them to have a problem.'

'If a commander expects a system to have a problem, then how could they rely upon it?' Gibson said.

Gibson cast some of the blame on the packet-based nature of Internet Protocol, which was not designed for foolproof delivery of messages. The protocol cannot guarantee delivery of e-mail, for instance.

'The packet network paradigm probably needs to change,' Gibson said. 'I'm not advocating throwing out the Internet Protocol completely, but we must absolutely have some mechanism for assigning network capabilities to different users and that capability has to scale to large numbers of devices automatically. The commander wants to be able to send a message and have it delivered, completely, accurately and on time.'

Another limitation with the IP approach is the inability to dynamically build networks. The military wants to quickly set up ad hoc networks.

'Static networks are no good for tomorrow's battlefield, because everything will move around all the time,' Gibson said. 'What we need is dynamic scalability. Today's networks are stationary and have a static infrastructure that provides service to static end-nodes. Moving the node outside its standard service area requires reconfiguring something. Moving infrastructure always means reconfiguring something.'

As a result, DARPA wants to fund development of new protocols or enhancements to the existing IP that will allow nodes, such as computers, to automatically sign on to networks in their vicinity.

Another aspects of the networking that DARPA wants to revise is the seven-layer OSI stack, long held as the basic foundation for building network protocols.

The OSI model was not designed for wireless communications devices, said Reggie Brothers, a DARPA program manager.

'The OSI model served us pretty well for the stable, predictable world of wireline communications,' Brothers said. 'Mobile networks are nothing like that. They are unpredictable and highly variable. We need to think of different layers of the stack to relate to one another directly, like a mesh, instead of one level up to the next.'

The increased complexity of the network stack would let nodes enter a network quickly and without human intervention, Brothers said.

The von Neumann architecture will also come under scrutiny from DARPA.

'It is time to ask the harder questions about the ways of computer architecture we've been using for the past 30 years. Is it time to scrap the von Neumann architecture?' asked Anup Gosh, program officer for the Advanced Technology Office.

This architecture, which defines the basic essential parts of a computer as the processor, control unit, memory and input-output devices, has been used as the basis for design for nearly all computers built since the 1940s.

One of the limitations inherent in this approach is that when an application malfunctions, it can affect other programs, Gosh said. Program bugs also are vulnerabilities that can be used by adversaries to attack the entire system. What military networks need, Gosh said, is a way to isolate software programs at the hardware level.

About the Author

Joab Jackson is the senior technology editor for Government Computer News.


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