New research project takes the internet’s pulse

30 Jul 2004

SANTA CLARA: As viruses and worms continue to spread online, a US research project aims to encourage users to share information that would help to identify sources of attack and measure the performance of the internet.

Dubbed Public Health of the Internet (PHI), the project is intended to measure the health of the network. The concept was developed in a lab jointly run by Intel and the University of California in Berkeley.

Using a medical analogy, researchers reasoned that currently, when users are infected with a virus, common practice is to install software – a vaccine of sorts – that cures the problem, one patient at a time. To date there has been no attempt to look at the incidence and distribution of disease or to control its spread in a population.

What PHI proposes is that a small piece of software be installed on a large number of computers to provide a health check on the internet itself. “We’re trying to map the medical metaphor back and we’d like to get end users involved in this effort to measure the internet,” said Professor Joe Hellerstein of UC Berkeley.

It is believed that encouraging widespread takeup of the software would in turn promote safer use on the internet, in the same way that real-world disease control measures work. Instead of being operated centrally, users would download an easy-to-use screensaver that shares data on a peer-to-peer basis, in a similar way to online music downloading tools. “P2P technology is ripe and significant research is maturing. These technologies allow millions of computers to interoperate,” said Hellerstein.

The project accounts for 21pc of the budget and staff time at Intel Research Lab Berkeley. PHI is currently running on PlanetLab, a collection of machines spread around the world for distributed systems teaching and research, which is another Berkeley brainchild. Researchers are evaluating ways to distribute PHI to a wider body of users; it may be made available to download from the web or alternatively it could even be supplied preinstalled on PCs.

The screensaver shows a map of the world and users can query the application to see what network events are taking place at that moment. The map displays patterns of network behaviour globally or on a more localised level depending on the query. The screensaver can generate a list of the top ten internet protocol addresses which are attacking computers. “If you have that data, you can cut way down on your nasty internet traffic. You could put those addresses into your firewall software and block attacks from them,” said Hellerstein.

The end result would be a giant, live database of internet behaviour. “This kind of project is great for the research community, it’s a communal boon to the computing ecosystem. The fact that it’s not happening is a classic tragedy of the commons,” added Hellerstein. This could also benefit future versions of the network on which the internet is based, he predicted. “You would know what was happening on the internet. If you knew that, you would design protocols and applications very differently.”

By Gordon Smith