Building Internet2: Part II

One of Georgia Tech's machine rooms.
One of Georgia Tech's machine rooms.

How'd you like your own private internet? One without spam and hackers, just you and the people you trust. Sounds pretty good, and it might be the shape of things to come in the future thanks to research going on right now.

Internet2 is a high-speed, high-tech project at Georgia Tech and other institutions. They're collaborating on important research around the country, so naturally they're always working on ways to make sure that only authorized people get in, no one trying to sell you stuff or pop-up ads for pornography. And one day, we might all just benefit.

Georgia Tech chemistry professor Rig Hernandez uses extremely powerful computers to study the tiny parts of matter and the building blocks of life.

"By understanding how molecules behave at the microscopic level, and then taking that and asking how they assemble into macroscopic objects, you can be able to say something about how everyday objects function or behave," he said.

He uses the super-fast private network of Internet2 to share findings with distant colleagues, in real time. "Literally point and click and communicate with someone from a distance and show them a particular structure and move it around and have that person say, 'This one right here, why is that the connection?' Now we can do that."

The computer models he uses are so complex, they can take months to build, even on a fast computer. Internet2 helps speed the process.

In one of Georgia Tech's machine rooms, you can see racks of computers representing awesome computing power. When researchers have big numbers to crunch and lots of equations, they can go through these. If they need even more, they can go over Internet2 to facilities like that at other institutions around the country.

Internet2 researchers develop ways to make sure that only authorized users can access these machines and keep hackers and viruses out.

"Security's a hard problem," said Dr. Ron Hutchins, the school's CTO. "You have this paradox between, 'I want this network that's wide open so that I can talk to anybody in the galaxy,' versus, 'I don't want anybody to be able to send me anything unless I want.' And those are two constraints that are not realizable at the same time. You have to choose where along the path you're going to reside."

Isolated from the public internet by advanced security tools, Internet2 serves a trusted community of researchers. They picture a day when other groups can carve out their own parts of cyberspace for access only by trusted peers.

"We're building communities," said Hutchins. "We have this one huge network, but in essence we're compartmentalizing that and building communities. And I think having the tools on the internet to build those communities is a thing that's coming."

Imagine a kind of mini internet, with websites, email, downloads--everything you use the regular internet for, but restricted only to authorized users with known identities. Once logged in, you're safer from spam, porno, and pop-ups.

Absolute security remains impossible online. As Hutchins put it, "The only way you get absolute security on your computer is to unplug it from the network, unplug it from the wall, turn it off, and put it in a safe with a guard on it."

But the tools that power Internet2 could one day let us choose between the wide-open internet, or a smaller, safer part to call our own.

Reported by: Charles Gray,