Keeping the Net Up

Only toil in the trenches and at the top will keep the Internet up and running

Photo: Sara Hathaway

Icann board members (from l. to r.) Vint Cerf, Jun Murai, George Conrades, and Esther Dyson at last November's meeting. Cerf was elected board chair, succeeding Dyson, who retired. Conrades retired too, while Murai stayed on.

This is part of IEEE Spectrum's special report: Always On: Living in a Networked World.

To most users, the Internet looks like another utility. Like a local phone or gas company, a local Internet service provider delivers the Net to their desktops. But that's not how it looks to the people who make the Net work. Although it must operate like a single entity, the Internet is made up of many independently owned and operated computers and networks.

Keeping the parts working and keeping them working together are two separate tasks. To make any one of the Net's networks work, a new breed of company known as management service providers (MSPs) is now stepping in. And keeping the separate networks in step with one another is now the job of the two-year-old Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (Icann), Marina del Rey, Calif. [Fig. 1].

As things stand, the information highway looks bumpy for both. For their part, MSPs are still introducing themselves and their capabilities. At the same time, they are trying to figure out how to collaborate efficiently. As for Icann, it is under fire from start-up domain-name registrars and others who object to how it conducts business. And it has till September 2001--a one-year extension--to prove it can run the Internet in a way that is satisfactory to just about everyone.

Making sure the pieces work

Skip MacAskill, director of the Management Service Provider (MSP) Association Inc., Wakefield, Mass., claims MSPs will fulfill an essential requirement. The Internet has become an integral piece of a company's infrastructure, he told IEEE Spectrum, "and MSPs are the most cost-effective way to [manage] it."

MSPs are an offshoot of another youthful breed of company: application service providers, or ASPs. ASPs maintain and manage corporate customers' run-of-the-mill applications, freeing them to focus on their core businesses. "ASPs that specialized in providing software for network management and monitoring applications went on to take over the actual management and monitoring of the network," explains MacAskill, who is also vice president of marketing for MSP SilverBack Technologies Inc., Billerica, Mass. SilverBack is such a company, having formed as an ASP in the spring of 1999.

SilverBack and 17 other companies, including Hewlett-Packard's OpenView group and McAfee.com, formed the MSP Association in July 2000. By the time it held its first meeting of the entire membership last November at Comdex, in Las Vegas, Nev., its ranks had swelled to more than 600 members.

The group believes that MSPs will soon be in high demand, and it is not alone in that belief. But exactly how great a demand is unclear. Some market researchers have forecast that, in about three years, MSP revenues may be as much as US $10 billion; others predict their income will be only $500 million. The reason for this wide discrepancy is that no two forecasters agree just who should wear the MSP label.

Thus the MSP Association's first working group has been given the job of defining what the whole MSP market looks like, in terms of the assorted services offered by MSPs. In effect, each MSP has a piece of the puzzle, and by coming together, they can see the whole picture. In so doing, the group hopes to make the MSP landscape clearer to would-be customers, too, thereby letting them make informed choices about what services they wish to purchase.

ICANN logo"Today," MacAskill said, "everyone's calling themselves MSPs," which confuses potential customers. At a minimum, he sees a market structure in which specialized MSPs can offer management of, say, security or network performance, as well as generalists who can provide complete network management.

To succeed, MSPs must take on a number of technical issues, according to Deborah MacCallum, SilverBack's vice president of technology. "The big issue," she said, "is collecting data in real time." She explained that the Internet is not yet reliable enough for an MSP to use it as the primary way of gathering data from a remote customer facility. Yet an MSP needs to have complete data if it is to analyze and evaluate the performance of a customer's network effectively. So MSPs are installing data-gathering hardware-software monitors at the customer site so that data can be collected even when the customer is cut off from the Net.

For your eyes only

Once the data is collected, MSPs must also be able to ensure its security both inside and outside the customer's facilities. While performance data is being gathered on site, "There is concern about who has access to [it] inside the company and while it is being transferred from the customer to the MSP," MacCallum told Spectrum. Further, the MSP must assure its customers that the data is safe with the provider, inaccessible to any of its other customers. MSPs are solving these problems by making sure that systems have adequate password protection, secure data transfer using, say, virtual private networks, and databases with rigidly partitioned segments in which to store customer data.

According to MacAskill, the compelling argument in favor of MSPs is cost. SilverBack's service costs $4000 per month, or $48 000 per year, versus the annual $200 000 he claims it would take customers to acquire, install, and maintain the applications software themselves. In addition, the customer avoids the schedule risks inherent in bringing any software system on line, as well as the time and personnel resources needed to do it. However, before customers feel comfortable buying their services, MSPs must establish a framework--a collection of the best practices in network monitoring and maintenance, including testing [see "Comprehensive Testing Maximizes a Site's Value"]--so customers can evaluate MSP offerings. The MSP Association has begun work on this task as well.

MacAskill is confident that these requirements can be put in place in the coming year so that management of local Internet resources will not be a problem. What also will be needed then is an organization that can make sure the different networks that make up the Net can work together as a whole, one that can handle issues that affect the entire Internet. Today, some question whether Icann, which has been charged with that work, can perform it fairly and effectively [see table, below].

Who Keeps the Internet Running?
The three organizations listed first in this table are essential to the operation of the Internet. Although the fourth group--the World Wide Web Consortium--has no direct involvement in the Internet's workings, it develops technical standards for the Web, whose popularity has been the major force behind the spread of the Internet.
  ORGANIZATION   FUNCTIONS
  Internet Corporation for Assigned
Names and Numbers (Icann)
Marina Del Rey, Calif.
  A nonprofit corporation responsible for allocating IP address space, assigning protocol parameters, and managing the domain name and root server system. This last function includes determining which new top-level domains are added to the system.
  Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF)
Reston, Va.
  An international community of network designers, operators, vendors, and researchers. Their job is to evolve the Internet and smooth its operation by creating technical standards through consensus.
  The Internet Society (ISOC)
Reston, Va.
  An international, nonprofit organization for Internet professionals. It serves as the "organizational home" of the IETF, overseeing various organizational and coordinating tasks.
  World Wide Web Consortium (W3C)
Cambridge, Mass.
  A consortium of over 400 corporate, academic, and public institutions that oversees the application most responsible for the Net's rapid growth: the World Wide Web. W3C identifies new technical requirements, designs technologies to fulfill them, produces standards (called recommendations), and coordinates its efforts with other standards groups, including the IETF.

 

What can Icann do?

Icann has drawn lightning many times in the past year. Complex issues have landed at its doorstep, such as whether a person can register and use a domain name that refers to a brand name or trademark owned by someone else, and who should run and own domain-name registries.

Meanwhile, Icann is a start-up still trying to find its way. A not-for-profit corporation, it was formed in 1998, as the Internet was becoming highly commercial and global, to take over work on a trial basis previously done by the U.S. government. Further, Icann's charter says it must represent the interests of the individual Internet users throughout the world, saddling it with the task of finding one or more representatives of each community to sit on its board. As if this weren't enough, Icann has no clear way to raise operating funds.

Ultimately, Icann's job is to perform, or oversee the performance of, tasks that are key to operating the Net, and to ensure that it runs smoothly. Specifically, it assigns all the 32-bit Internet protocol (IP) addresses--the unique ID numbers that computers and servers must have in order to find each other on the Net. Icann is also responsible for seeing that domain names (like ieee.org and ibm.com) are properly registered, so that the domain-name servers (which convert domain names to IP addresses) can do their jobs. To discharge these latter responsibilities, Icann has opened the job of registering domain names ending in .com to several commercial organizations, whereas before it had only been performed by one government contractor: Network Solutions Inc., Herndon, Va.

Icann's latest trial is the creation of new top-level domains (TLDs) like .com. For some time, it has been under pressure to expand the number of TLDs. It has been estimated that all the simple one- and two-word .com names have been taken, leaving only a domain-name option like, for example, www.whattheheckamigoingtonamemysite.com--not easy either to remember or to type correctly. Also, companies with similar corporate identities are vying for the same name.

For instance, both National Semiconductor and National Car Rental would like to have www.national.com as their Web site address. However, because National Semiconductor registered that domain name first, National Car Rental is stuck with www.nationalcar.com, although most auto renters think of it simply as a one-name company, National, as they do Avis (www.avis.com) and Hertz (www.hertz.com). With the seven new Icann-approved TLDs--.aero, .biz, .coop, .info, .museum, .name, and .pro--scheduled to go into operation later this year, it might be possible for National Car Rental to use www.national.biz, if it is able to register that name first.

The domain name game

To propose one of those new top-level domains, an organization had to pay cash-strapped Icann US $50 000. The nominator hoped to recoup the hefty fee by being granted a license to run the domain registry should its TLD be picked. In choosing seven from a field of over 50 proposed new top-level domains, however, Icann incurred the wrath of those companies backing names not chosen. For instance, .nom was among those not picked. Speaking last November at the Icann meeting in Marina Del Rey, Calif., where new names were chosen, Lou Kerner, chief executive officer of The .TV Corp. Intl., Pasadena, Calif., and the dotNOM Consortium, said he wanted "to highlight what most people in the room were thinking--that the process is very, very flawed."

Also not chosen was .web. That TLD, proposed by the consortium Afilias LLC, New York City, initially had the support of Icann's board and seemed to be a desirable name. However, Network Solutions, which lost its battle with Icann to retain exclusive rights to the .com registry, is part of Afilias. Esther Dyson, who was chair of Icann at the time, said Network Solutions involvement "gives me a creepy feeling." Although she urged the board not to grant any domain name to Afilias, it did give the consortium .info as if it were awarding a consolation prize.

Icann also decided to reject .kids, which it saw as problematic. The TLD was proposed as a place where kids could use the Internet safely. Parents could set Internet access control software like NetNanny to block their offspring from visiting any site not ending in .kids. It was rejected, however, because "it is not possible to deliver, on a global scale in all cultures and age groups, a coherent and reasonably assured experience," according to Internet pioneer Vint Cerf, senior vice president, data architecture for WorldCom Inc., Herndon, Va. Nor did Icann wish to guarantee that .kids would be safe for children. "I don't think this is the kind of thing Icann should be promising," said Dyson.

Even if Icann's choice of new TLDs is accepted, just selecting them does not make them operational. Icann must still negotiate with the winning applicants the terms under which they will operate the registry. Up for discussion are fees for registering a name in one of the new domains--it currently costs $35 to register a .com name--and whether companies that own a .com domain name should automatically have the right to register the name with a new suffix. Both topics promise to be controversial.

Overseeing such negotiations will be Icann's new chair, Vint Cerf. Cerf brings two valuable personal assets to his new position: widespread respect within the Internet community and his skill in addressing global concerns as leader of the Internet Society. Both his prestige and prior experience will be put to the test in steering Icann through the next year.

To Probe Further

The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers publishes press releases and the texts of recent rulings it has made; its site is http://www.icann.org.

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