DARPA takes aim at IT sacred cows03/11/04
By Joab Jackson,
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
“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
“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
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,
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
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
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.