In 1543, Nicolas Copernicus forever changed the way we view the cosmos. He put the Sun at the center of things—not the Earth. Today, at the famed Palo Alto Research Center, Van Jacobson hopes to lead a similar revolution, one that forever changes the way we view PC networking. He aims to put the data at the center of things—not the server.
Jacobson likes to tell a story about a video that NBC posted to the Web during the 2006 Winter Olympics. The video showed U.S. skier Bode Miller as he was famously disqualified during the Alpine combined event, and within seconds of its posting, there was severe congestion on the router downstream from NBC’s servers. At that moment, the router held 6,000 copies of the same video. Six thousand people had made 6,000 individual TCP/IP connections to the same server, and the network had no way of knowing that most of those connections were redundant. It couldn’t understand that the 6,000 videos were identical. It couldn’t do anything to relieve the congestion.
The classic point-to-point networking model is fundamentally flawed. Today, if you want a piece of data from the network, you almost always need a direct connection to the data’s original source—the server. That’s true even if the data has already been downloaded to a device that’s much closer. So often, tapping into a distant server wastes time. And if the server is unavailable, you’re out of luck entirely.
With a project called Content-Centric Networking, or CCN, Jacobson and his team of PARC networking gurus are turning this model on its head. They’re building a networking system that revolves around the data itself, a system in which a router can actually identify that Bode Miller video and act accordingly. Under the CCN model, you don’t tell the network that you’re interested in connecting to a server. You tell it that you want a particular piece of data. You broadcast a request to all the machines on the network, and if one of them has what you’re looking for, it responds. "You can authenticate and validate information using the information itself—independent of whom you got it from," says Jacobson. "So if you want The New York Times, you can pick it up from any machine that has a copy."
It’s a bit like BitTorrent, but on a grander scale. CCN can improve everything from the public Internet to your private LAN. It can get you that Bode Miller video even if NBC’s servers go down. But it’s also an efficient means of keeping your calendar synchronized. You needn’t set up three separate links between your PC, laptop, and a handheld. Each device simply broadcasts a request for calendar updates to all the others—wirelessly, say. Initially, Jacobson plans to roll out CCN on top of today’s networking infrastructure—in much the same way BitTorrent was deployed across the existing Internet. But eventually, he wants to push these new ideas down to the Net’s grass roots, to change in a fundamental way how machines speak to one another at the packet level. Yes, he’s facing a mammoth task. But so did Copernicus.