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Communications of the ACM


Future Internet Architecture: Clean-Slate Versus Evolutionary Research

Nodal representation of the Internet

Nodal representation of the Internet.

Visualization by Shai Carmi, Shlomo Havlin, Scott Kirkpatrick, Yuval Shavitt, and Eran Shir

Should researchers focus on designing new network architectures or improving the current Internet?

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CACM Administrator

The following letter was published in the Letters to the Editor in the January 2011 CACM (
--CACM Administrator

Some of what Constantine Dovrolis said in the Point/Counterpoint "Future Internet Architecture: Clean-Slate Versus Evolutionary Research" (Sept. 2010) concerning an evolutionary approach to developing Internet architecture made sense, and, like Jennifer Rexford on the other side, I applaud and encourage the related "evolutionary" research. But I found his "pragmatic vision" argument neither pragmatic nor visionary. Worse was the impudence of the claim of "practicality."

Mid-20th century mathematician Morris Kline said it best when referring to the history of mathematics: "The lesson of history is that our firmest convictions are not to be asserted dogmatically; in fact they should be most suspect; they mark not our conquests but our limitations and our bounds."

For example, it took 2,000 years for geometry to move beyond the "pragmatism" of the parallel postulate, some 200 years for Einstein to overtake Newton, 1,400 years for Copernicus to see beyond Ptolemy, and 10,000 years for industrialization to supplant agriculture as the dominant economic activity. The Internet's paltry 4050-year history is negligible compared to these other clean-slate revolutions.

Though such revolutions generally fail, failure is often the wellspring of innovation. Honor and embrace it. Don't chide it as "impractical." The only practical thing to do with this or any other research agenda is to open-mindedly test our convictions and assumptions over and over...including any clean-slate options.

I worry about the blind spot in our culture, frequently choosing "practical effort" over bolder investment, to significantly change things. Who takes the 10,000-, 1,000-, or even 100-year view when setting a research agenda? Far too few. Though "newformers" fail more often than the "practical" among us, they are indeed the ones who change the world.

CJ Fearnley
Upper Darby, PA

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