The problem with the Internet is that it was never meant to be what it has become.
In the early 1960s, the Internet was part of a U.S. Department of Defence initiative to build a communications network that would withstand a catastrophe such as a nuclear war, and keep communications traffic moving even if parts were broken or unavailable.
In the 1980s, the Internet was opened up to researchers and universities, who used it to exchange information. By the 1990s, with the advent of Hypertext Markup Language to build Web pages and Hyper Text Transmission Protocol to send them from computer to computer, the Internet that we all know was born.
Today, the Internet weaves in all directions across the planet and underpins supply chains, commerce and communication. The original military network has mushroomed into a lawless cybersociety where anything can and often does happen. In other words, it is an out-of-control communication system.
What's needed is a sheriff to bring order to this wild frontier. In IT parlance, "network management" is that marshal. But mapping large business networks and optimizing the flow of data traffic across them is just about the toughest thing to do in IT. Some technical experts have suggested there's simply no way to do this job accurately on a network the size of the Internet.
But Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) begged to differ. It took on the challenge last year, defying convention to build a network management system that could actually assess the vulnerability of the Internet to physical threats.
"This was a proposal to look specifically at Internet-related risks, using GIS [geographic information systems]to capture and profile these risks," says Lathif Masood, project manager for the enterprise solutions group for ESRI Canada Ltd.
ESRI and IP networking consultant Solana Networks Inc. of Ottawa were part of a team that, over a period of five months, built the technology for a revolutionary network management system able to map a vast topology like the Internet against a template that provided environmental, geographic and power grid views. Simply put, ESRI and Solana took a GIS tool able to recognize and track weather events, earthquakes and floods, coupled it with a management system that maps local and regional power grid topologies, and combined it with a traditional network monitoring system. The result can identify where devices such as network switches and routers, hardware that moves data across networks, are located -- an all-in-one integrated Internet manager.
Being able to map all of the gear that handles the gazillion bits flowing across the Internet each day is one thing. To further be able to locate and map all of these devices in a geographic way and to view the operational status of that gear relative to local power grids to which they are connected was literally unheard of. It is a huge leap in network management technology that could ultimately make the Internet and other networks much safer and higher-performance places to surf.
"You can [now]identify the connection points of the network relative to impacting geographic elements, weather systems and power grids," says Gegs Jones, vice-president of business development for Solana. "It means that you can now start to locate your physical [network]infrastructure away from danger zones."
To understand why such knowledge is important, think of the scenario of a couple of years ago when a flood in a downtown Toronto hydro transformer building knocked out the entire power grid for the area -- the highest concentration of vital large business operations in the country. While many major corporations located in the downtown Toronto core had redundant mirroring IT systems designed to step up in the event of such an occurrence, many of these were supported by the same power grid and knocked out when power failed. The PSEPC system could have shown companies this vulnerability in advance, so that they could improve their backup plans or network topologies.
On a larger scale, PSEPC also considered the unpredictable and vulnerable nature of the Internet, including the fact that conditions known as "storms" -- a sudden surge of traffic in specific parts of the Internet, which were typically indicators of imminent failures or malicious activity -- had become rampant. It prompted thinking in terms of a system that could both identify problems on the Internet as they were developing and provide the means to potentially model the pattern and impact of possible failures as they spread throughout the network. The GIS system built by ESRI and Solana is able to show how, in the event of a major Internet failure, traffic might be rerouted and even how applications might be affected. That allows network planners to develop failover strategies and to undertake improvements that would minimize the impact of failure.
"You can simulate breakdowns and visualize where traffic goes," Mr. Masood says. "You can create scenarios to see how things are rerouted. You can see this visually."
The PSEPC management project's applications and underlying technologies have already proved themselves in a simulated situation. It has yet to be deployed live, but there is tremendous interest in the system.
As for deployment in Canada, Mr. Jones says, "it's something we would envision -- not just for the Internet, but for other networks as well."
There's a strong business case for larger businesses and financial institutions to use this system, since network outages can cost a company between 2 and 16 per cent of annual revenue, according to some estimates.
"The research part is over," Mr. Masood says. "It shows GIS can be a tremendous asset to monitoring the Internet."
But advancing the system's capabilities further -- beyond simply knowing where network communications devices are located to a system with the ability to do deep packet inspection on the Internet similar to the way traffic is managed on smaller networks -- will be much tougher.
"I don't see that happening soon," Mr. Masood says. "The technology is there. But in order to get further, we need to have support from the powers that hold the data."
That includes major corporations, utility companies and others who currently use customized or proprietary schemes for data transmission. The challenge is to convince everyone to co-operate.
Advancing beyond what the PSEPC has been able to achieve will require a collaborative business philosophy that's been unheard of to date, but the payoff for businesses in today's wired economy would be enormous. It's the old IT security story that such teamwork ultimately benefits everyone.
Dan McLean is editor-in-chief of publisher ITWorldCanada.com.