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New technique could boost internet speeds tenfold

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July 21, 2014

'Network coding' could make the internet faster and more secure (Image: Shutterstock)

'Network coding' could make the internet faster and more secure (Image: Shutterstock)

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Researchers at Aalborg University, MIT and Caltech have developed a new mathematically-based technique that can boost internet data speeds by up to 10 times, by making the nodes of a network much smarter and more adaptable. The advance also vastly improves the security of data transmissions, and could find its way into 5G mobile networks, satellite communications and the Internet of Things.

The problem with TCP/IP

Data is sent over the internet in "packets," or small chunks of digital information. The exact format of the packets and the procedure for delivering them to their destination is described by a suite of protocols known as TCP/IP, or the internet protocol suite, designed in the early 70s.

Back when it was conceived, the internet protocol suite was a tremendous leap forward that revolutionized our paradigm for transmitting digital information. Remarkably, 40 years on, it still forms the backbone of the internet. However, despite all its merits, few would say that it is particularly efficient, secure or flexible.

For instance, in order for a TCP data transmission to be successful, the recipient needs to collect the packets in the exact order in which they were sent over. If even a single packet is lost for any reason, the protocol interprets this as a sign that the network is congested – the transmission speed is immediately halved, and from there it attempts to rise again only very slowly. This is ideal in some situations and terribly inefficient in others. The issue is that the protocol doesn't have the intelligence to know what the right thing to do is.

Also, although the packets could take a theoretically infinite number of paths to travel between point A and point B in a network, it turns out that data in a TCP connection always travels along the same path – which makes it quite easy for an eavesdropper to spy on your communications.

Network coding – the solution?

An interesting proposal that might offer the solution to these problems is so-called network coding, which aims to make each node in the network much smarter that it currently is. In TCP/IP, the nodes of the network are just simple switches that can only store data packets and then forward them to the next node along their predetermined route; by contrast, in network coding each node can elaborate packets as needed, for instance by re-routing or re-encoding them.

Adding intelligence at the node level may be a truly disruptive change, because it allows for unparalleled flexibility in the way information is handled. For instance, it can take advantage of multipath TCP (implemented in iOS 7) and, on top of it, add an encoding mechanism that further increases security and speed, or even enable data storage right within the nodes of the network.

Researchers Morten Videb and Janus Heide (Photo: Aalborg University)
Researchers Morten Videb and Janus Heide (Photo: Aalborg University)

In a recent study, a team of researchers from Aalborg University (Denmark), MIT and Caltech have built an implementation of just such a protocol, displaying some impressive speed gains. In a demo, a four minute-long mobile video was downloaded five times faster than with the state of the art technology, and was then streamed without interruptions.

"In experiments with our network coding of Internet traffic, equipment manufacturers experienced speeds that are five to 10 times faster than usual. And this technology can be used in satellite communication, mobile communication and regular internet communication from computers," says Prof. Frank Fitzek, who led the study.

How it works

Whether the contents of a packet are part of a YouTube video, a text or a song, they are nonetheless encoded by a string of zeros and ones, which can also be seen as a number in binary format.

In TCP/IP, the nodes of a network treat data packets individually by simply storing their content and relaying it to the next node. But in the protocol developed by Fitzek and colleagues, the content of the packet is seen as an actual number, and packets are processed in chunks. Each node builds a set of linear equations, using both the numbers extracted from the content of the packets and a set of randomly generated coefficients.

Each linear equation forms a "coded packet" where the coefficients are stored inside the coded packet's header, and the unknown variables are the actual contents of the packets, treated as a number. In other words, each coded packet contains partial information on several "standard" packets at once, but multiplied by different coefficients.

As you might remember from high school math, you need N linear equations to solve for N unknown variables. Because each coded packet contains a single equation, this means that the recipient will need N packets (with different coefficients) before it can decode the data.

The system is much safer than the current Internet protocols, because an eavesdropper woul...
The system is much safer than the current Internet protocols, because an eavesdropper would need to intercept all the packets to decode the information (Image: Franz Fitzek)

But why go to the trouble of complicating things so much? The answer is that now, unlike with TCP/IP, the recipient doesn't need to receive packets in order. In fact, the order in which packets are received becomes completely irrelevant. All that matters is that the recipient obtains N coded packets, all with different coefficients, so it can solve the equations and obtain the original data.

This flexibility in the order means that the whole system is much more efficient, because all the packets are interchangeable. A lost packet is no longer cause for severe transmission delays as in TCP/IP.

And because the order doesn't matter, the packets can now travel along different paths through the network. This also increases security, because it becomes nearly impossible for anyone to intercept the communication by tapping into a single line.

What's next?

The technology could find application in 5G telecommunications, the Internet of Things, and software-defined networks. Moreover, the intelligence of the network also opens up the possibility of vastly distributed storage solutions directly within the network.

"I think the technology will be integrated in most products because it has some crucial and necessary functions," says Fitzek. "The only thing that can stop the development is patents. Previously, individual companies had a solid grip on patents for coding. But our approach is to make it as accessible as possible."

Sources: Aalborg University, Franz Fitzek

About the Author
Dario Borghino Dario studied software engineering at the Polytechnic University of Turin. When he isn't writing for Gizmag he is usually traveling the world on a whim, working on an AI-guided automated trading system, or chasing his dream to become the next European thumbwrestling champion.   All articles by Dario Borghino
14 Comments

What they describe is essentially forward error correction so packets do not need to be retransmitted but it adds overhead to the steam. FEC is already common on many of the lower level protocols that are in use but adding it to routers at the IP layer seems like a bit of a step back.

With IPv6 routers no longer perform packet fragmentation for instance because there is a need for them to be faster/dumber/ cheaper. Out of sequence packets are generally fine with TCP because the packets are each numbered for reassembly.

Data could be sped up essentially by rolling CDN functionality directly into the protocol (today it is mostly a feature bolted on to DNS). Hosts can be assigned a CDN node through DHCP option 82 and send reference it with their GET request, the server then points them to that CDN and the client reports performance statistics back to the centralized controller for monitoring. It saves the trouble of having to know the location of all the caching DNS servers doing lookups to guess which cluster to serve the client out of and you can always still just point the client request elsewhere if there a reason to (like degraded performance).

This wouldn't be terribly difficult to deploy into the protocol but I believe Verizon and some other people own patents that would prevent it. Thankfully some of those patents are nearing their lifespan.

Daishi
21st July, 2014 @ 02:32 pm PDT

GREAT—let me know how it works out for countries outside the US!

The notion that free market increasing competition and lowering prices in the US is a lie at the Big Corporation level. Look at other markets, like cable/data services. The companies don't compete against each other, they just quietly collude to set up fiefdoms around the country like a bunch of mini-monopolies, thereby keeping prices high and those huge bonuses coming in for the executives. There are HUNDREDS of examples of less gigantic companies (with less lawyers, resources and Congressional clout) where companies are found guilty of collusion (essentially conspiracy) and they just quietly pay their fines and then try and find another way to game the system. Monsanto and Japanese agribusiness chemical suppliers and recent flatscreen manufacturers come to mind—WE NEED STRONG WATCH DOGS TO PROTECT CONSUMERS—AND GOVERNMENT OFFICIALS NOT OWNED BY THE CORPORATIONS THEY'RE SUPPOSED TO REGULATE.

According to Pulitzer Prize winner Investigative reporter David Cay Johnston, author of "The Fine Print.":

The Internet was invented in the U.S., but we've fallen behind other countries in terms of access and speed. Our service is more expensive than in any of those countries. Why? Wealthy corporations have worked the regulatory system to their advantage to their benefit so that the fees that banks and phone and cable companies have added over the years that have made your bills incrementally larger but have added up to big money for corporations.

Through various fees above the stated cost, in our phone bills, we've actually been paying, over the years, to create the cable network that provides Internet access and cable TV. We've paid, between cable company rate increases and telephone company rate increases, over a half-trillion dollars to get the Internet.

Per bit of information, we pay 38 TIMES what the Japanese pay. The US now rank 29th in the speed of our Internet, according to Pando Networks. We're way behind countries like Lithuania, Ukraine and Moldavia in the speed of our Internet.

American triple-play packages average about $160 a month, including fees. The same service in France is only $38 a month with an Internet that is 10 times faster uploading - downloading and 20 times faster uploading, with much broader international television stations than you get here.

Thanks to our donation/payola loving local, state and national elected officials, US consumer now dance to the tune of our corporations—NOT the other way around.

This country may have once been the envy of the world, it's a sad, corrupt place now.

yrag
21st July, 2014 @ 03:10 pm PDT

There was another project that was really interesting, the idea was to turn the whole interenet into a mesh network. I think maidsafe was the name of it.. Really interesting for further reading.

asdf
21st July, 2014 @ 05:29 pm PDT

Bogus. Internet speed is constrained by switch processing power, not packet paths etc - this uses *more* switch processing - put this on a real internet, and the net result is going to be a 10x speed reduction. (it's a no-starter anyhow, the CALEA law makes this idea illegal to begin with).

christopher
21st July, 2014 @ 07:49 pm PDT

First false premise is that packets need to be received in order. This is not true for TCP. That's what the receive window is for. Packets can be received in any order within the window. Selective acknowledgements assist in efficiently requesting resends where a packet was actually dropped due to congestion.

This proposed method sounds like just another compression algorithm. It will also suffer from dropped packets. If it doesn't, it would have had to bloat out the payloads to provide redundancy. You can't get something for nothing.

As for storing data in the nodes.... well since the "node" is a router, I don't think that will happen any time soon.

Adrien
21st July, 2014 @ 09:00 pm PDT

@yrag people point out the cost of Internet in other countries mostly ignoring that a) the US has a much lower population density than most countries and b) most goods and services no matter what they are are generally more expensive in the US than around the world because its a different economy. Japan has 10x the population density of the US. The average household income in Ukraine is a fraction of what it is in the US.

It's true the executives are making too much money but that's also true of most public companies. After calculating for other factors like population density and economy I might still pay too much for Internet but the difference is likely a miniscule percentage of our yearly budget, its really amazing how much mental energy people spend complaining about it.

People pay half their income in taxes and still have to pay out of pocket for things like education, healthcare, and retirement. Middle class housing in some areas is anywhere from $250k to $1,000,000 and some people come out of college with 100k in student loans to pay back but what matters is the ~$180 you could save in a year by paying $15/month less for Internet access. If it was really that profitable more companies would be coming up with the money needed to enter the market or expand aggressively. There are a lot of costs associated with new deployments and it takes a long time to realize the investment of building out.

@christopher

A half decent read is http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/IPv6#Simplified_processing_by_routers

Essentially things like packet fragmentation, checksum, and queue timers are removed from IPv4 to IPv6. Checksum was purposely removed because its a redundant function with lower layers of the IP stack. IPv6 also uses a simplified fixed length header. It's expensive to run routers with a lot of features and processing power when you mostly just need them to move a lot of data cheaply and efficiently.

There is a huge difference in cost/bit for optical transport hardware vs router hardware in part because transport can just dumbly push on the data without having to do computationally expensive work like reading packet headers along the way. Facebook, Google etc. are frustrated with router costs and have taken to rolling their own (SDN based) routing platforms to force down costs. Another example of this was the industry move from SONET based circuits to cheaper ethernet based circuits/hardware.

There are better solutions to the problem than this (like pushing content delivery storage closer to the edge). There also isn't much need to send an existing TCP packet flow over multiple physical paths because routers have thousands of data transfers at any given time and they can just load balance per flow to achieve utilization of another path without having to subject individual flows to jitter.

Don't get me wrong, there is nothing wrong with new ideas and an outside the box look at the problem but I don't see it as a viable solution.

Daishi
21st July, 2014 @ 09:40 pm PDT

yrag is correct that we need watch dogs, but just dreaming to believe the bureaucrats will EVER not be "owned" by the industry. The corporation has the time and resources to focus on their particular regulators, while the poor consumer has to divide his attention among the bread, car tires, roof shingles, potatoes, shoes, and everything else needed/wanted for modern life. The regulate-everything mind set is how we got into our present situation.

The answer will be complex, but the principle is simple: limit the involvement of politics as much as possible.

piperTom
22nd July, 2014 @ 08:41 am PDT

If yrag can show me one example where govt. was not corrupt out of the last 10,000 years, I would not quote Einstein to him: "Doing the same thing over and over while hoping for a different result is insanity."

piper Tom: "... as much as possible ..." is correct. When people are willing to give up the worship of rulers, i.e., so-called leaders, as a viable social system, then we can begin to use the newly freed up market to provide security. It will quickly be realized that it was always "possible" to live a civilized life without being controlled, and be more prosperous.

We don't have to fear self-governance any more than free markets. You can't have one without the other.

Don Duncan
22nd July, 2014 @ 01:56 pm PDT

Great, but the NSA would never allow it.

Miles Marriott
22nd July, 2014 @ 02:12 pm PDT

Another thing they seem to have totally ignored - the quality of the connection. Actual physical connection is the limiting factor just about everywhere - for example, if you are at the end of a 7+ km very crappy coper line you are not going to get much more than a 1mbit connection, if, on the other hand, you are sitting on a t1 line then the sky is the limit. In the first case no matter what you do to the packets you are not going to get a faster connection, in fact the system described would most probably cause a SLOWER connection because of increased resends.

ivan4
22nd July, 2014 @ 05:05 pm PDT

Re: yrag

No free lunch. You get cheap cars, fuel, food, guns and realestate.

In exchange your population is baught.

Here in the land where cane toads and kangaroos outnumber people, you pay $10/kg for tomatoes, 700k for a crappy house, and $30k for a crappy small cars that we refuel at $1.7/l.

In many ways we are also equally under the thunb of our government, but our food and water hasn't been compromised.

So take your pick.

Nairda
22nd July, 2014 @ 08:55 pm PDT

1. Governments ultimately provide most of the capital for communications infrastructure. Expect them to claim the right to regulate what they paid for.

2. The more "intelligence" that is built into a machine, the more corruptible it becomes. "Intelligent nodes" sounds like a hacker's playground.

nutcase
23rd July, 2014 @ 05:38 am PDT

We'll have to be nicer/suckup to TIMECAST if we want it I suppose.

Carey Brox
23rd July, 2014 @ 11:34 am PDT

All you tech guys confuse me. My nephew says I'm technically challenged. So, I don't know if this is an improvement over current systems or not. My question is this. So what if it is? You can have all this increase in data stream then it gets bogged down into old servers. AOL for instance. I think a better benifit to mankind is to out law routers/old servers. I switched to high speed access years ago but I can not control when my data goes through sites with old hardware. I agree with you on cable providers though. Tornado came through here a couple years ago, internet down for 2 weeks. Billed in full. Constant breakdowns from access yet always billed in full. There should be some type of regulation compariable to utility company to whereas, you don't use it, you don't pay for it. It's unrelegulated & we suffer for it.

noteugene
14th September, 2014 @ 10:58 am PDT
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