Computing brothers at OHSU's OGI School of Science & Engineering say the Internet may never be perfect
The Internet grew too fast. A system originally meant for research purposes, it has quickly become indispensable to businesses and consumers around the world. Because it was cobbled together, it is plagued with problems, from weak security to service disruptions.
Two brothers, both computer science and engineering experts at Oregon Health & Science University's OGI School of Science & Engineering, based in Hillsboro, Ore., hope to see the Internet become more secure and reliable. But the problems are so massive that, they predict, even after some problems are solved, we may simply have to learn to live with a flawed system.
"The Internet was originally intended as an educational and research tool with a small set of users, applications and operating environments," said Wu-chi Feng, Ph.D., associate professor of computer science in the OGI School of Science & Engineering. "As it has matured, increasingly it is being used for purposes that had not been envisioned when it was architected."
As the Internet became commercialized during the mid-1990s, the diversity of users and applications exposed its weaknesses. But, with the enormous installed base of routers, switches and end-hosts, it is difficult to make any fundamental changes in the way the network operates. Instead, people resort to quick fixes that only make things worse in the long run.
"As weaknesses in the network have become apparent, we've seen Band-aid after Band-applied to address them," said Wu-chang Feng, Ph.D., assistant professor of computer science in the science and engineering school. "The Internet was constructed with weak notions of security and quality of service, and without regard to what businesses or governments required out of the network. Thus, it comes as no surprise that it is susceptible to attack, has service problems, and does not fully meet the demands of all of its users."
A good example of how the evolution of the Internet has created problems is the battle over music copyright. There is a fundamental tension between the free exchange of information that the Internet enables and the prohibition of certain forms of communication sought by the music industry.
As originally built, the Internet enables open, anonymous communication. With the advent of peer-to-peer networks in the late 1990s, where any computer is able to act as a file-sharing server, the music industry has sued to force Internet Service Providers to prohibit file sharing. But the architecture of the underlying Internet protocols makes this extremely difficult.
"People are trying to put in roadblocks to maintain some accountability in the Internet, but because of the way the Internet is architected, it may be futile," said Wu-chi, 34, the older of the two computing brothers. Added Wu-chang, 32, "We don't want to sound pessimistic, but short of completely shutting down the Internet and starting all over with a different architecture, there's only so much that can be done."
The Feng brothers know their way around computers. They grew up in New York, the second and fourth sons of Chinese immigrants. Both loved to play video games and then began programming games, too. Their educations and careers parallel one another. Both attended Penn State University and University of Michigan. After school, Wu-chi headed to Ohio State as an assistant professor, and Wu-chang worked at a California dot-com designing and building a PalmOS-based Web browser.
When Wu-chi interviewed in early 2000 for a position in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at OGI, he was asked whether he knew anyone good with networks. He did, of course, and Wu-chang joined the faculty in June 2001. Part of the school's Systems Software Lab, the brothers have offices next door to one another. Though their research interests are different, their work dovetails nicely, and they often knock on the wall to get one another's attention or to share an idea.
Wu-chi is studying ways to improve the delivery of video images over the Internet. Currently, video files are exceptionally large. Because of their size, they flow unevenly and often look bad. His work includes adaptive video streaming protocols for the delivery of stored video over best-effort networks as well as building technologies to support massively scalable video sensor networks, in hopes of improving video delivery and clarity. He has received a prestigious National Science Foundation CAREER award for his work in video streaming protocols.
Wu-chang, for his part, is looking at unique ways of building intrusion detection systems into computers to nab hackers and is collaborating with Intel researchers in scaleable Internet technologies. "Our project aims to create basic functionality within a computer network to allow it to be more scaleable and dependable as the Internet grows," he said.
Both brothers are interested in research that results in immediate practical applications that provide foundations for longer-term technologies. The Fengs also collaborate with other departments within OGI. For example, Wu-chi is working with researchers in the Department of Environmental Science and Engineering to design small-scale electronic devices for environmental monitoring and forecasting and, ultimately, to monitor hospital patients. Ultimately, Wu-chi believes that derivatives of such technologies can help in providing health care monitoring.
The Systems Software Lab's five faculty, seven graduate students, and five interns are a close-knit group. Instead of meeting in a conference room once a week, they go for a weekly 20-mile bike ride through the hills and valleys of Washington County.
"People don't believe it, but we actually discuss work when we ride side by side," said Wu-chi. "It gets us away from the issues going on at work so that we can brainstorm about new ideas and technologies. And it's fun to see everyone grow as researchers and as cyclists." Wu-chi lives in Tigard, Ore., with his wife, Carol, and sons, Ryan, 5, and Justin, 3. Wu-chang lives in downtown Portland.
Both brothers hope that some of the Internet's problems will be solved. "I think researchers will solve the bigger security and service issues that currently plague the Internet," said Wu-chi. "And we expect new protocol and application designs to greatly reduce some of the more problematic activities such as denial of service attacks and spam. The reality, though, is that sometimes when you solve a problem, another problem emerges in its wake. This is especially the case with the Internet." But, added Wu-Chang, "We'll continue to work on it."
The OGI School of Science & Engineering (formerly the Oregon Graduate Institute of Science & Technology) became one of four schools of Oregon Health & Science University in 2001.