This article is published in the March 2009 issue.

What is a “Better Internet?”

[The following item was posted on the CCC Blog ( on February 15, 2009. Online comments are welcome.]

What is a “better Internet?” The current Internet has been a remarkable success, providing a platform for innovation that far exceeds its original vision as a research instrument. It is well documented that the Internet has transformed the lives of billions of people in areas as diverse as education, healthcare, entertainment and commerce. Yet many of these successes are threatened by the increasing sophistication of security attacks and the organizations that propagate them. A materially more secure Internet would be “better.” Further, billions of people remain untouched by the advantages of the Internet; Internet World Statistics puts worldwide average Internet penetration at about 22 percent in mid 2008. An Internet that affordably reaches the other 80 percent of the world population would be “better.”

Beyond security and accessibility, there are other areas where limitations of the current Internet are significant. The Internet usually works pretty well, but every user has experienced inexplicable periods of degraded performance or outright non-function. The current Internet provides no visibility to end-users and shockingly little visibility to network managers and operators to support understanding, adapting to and fixing reliability problems. Such limitations require lay people spend their leisure time as network systems administrators and companies to spend heavily in network operations. Further, the lack of performance reliability prevents the Internet from advancing to become a truly dependable, critical infrastructure. Indeed, current societal reliance on the Internet for critical functions is disproportionate to our ability to deliver a high degree of dependability. A more predictable Internet would be “better.”

The Internet embeds societal values in ways that are often implicit and not well understood. For example, the Internet is “open,” usually intended to mean that anyone can join the network by implementing the public protocol IP. In principle, users can run any application on the Internet, without limitation imposed by the network protocols. Open networks promote organic growth, but suffer from a lack of mechanisms to vet or bar participation. Issues of trust and individual accountability are confusing. As the well-known cartoon says, “On the Internet, no one knows you’re a dog.” An Internet that contains support for identity would be “better.”

The research community is poised to dramatically advance the agenda of building better networks through advances in both empirical design methodology and systematic design methodology. We have an approach to support large-scale and flexible experimentation based on programmability of devices and federation of multiple test-beds. We have a nascent mathematical framework for understanding architectural features and underlying principles. The time is right to advance and link both methodologies to realize better networks.

It is important to note that fluctuations in degree production among CS departments have happened before. According to NSF, between 1980 and 1986, undergraduate CS production nearly quadrupled to more than 42,000 degrees. This period was followed by a swift decline and leveling off during the 1990s, with several years in which the number of degrees granted hovered around 25,000. During the late 1990s, CS degree production again surged to more than 57,000 in 2004.3 This more recent peak has also been followed by a decline and now a leveling off, and the current increase in new majors seems likely to be a leading indicator of future increases in degrees granted.

Ellen Zegura is Professor and Chair of Computer Science at the Georgia Institute of Technology. She wrote this in her role as chair of the NetSE Council.

What is a “Better Internet?”