[Oberon] DARPA takes aim at IT sacred cows

danforth at greenwoodfarm.com danforth at greenwoodfarm.com
Fri Mar 12 19:44:18 CET 2004

Does this hint at applications for Aos and parallel processing?

DARPA takes aim at IT sacred cows

By Joab Jackson
GCN Staff

ANAHEIM, Calif.—Now that the Defense Department is embracing 
network-driven warfare, it is taking a hard look at radically improving, 
or discarding altogether, some fundamental computer and network 

Flaws in the basic building blocks of networking and computer science 
are hampering reliability, limiting flexibility and creating security 
vulnerabilities, program managers said this week at the Defense Advanced 
Research Projects Agency’s DARPATech conference.

Among the IT holy grails that DARPA wants to see revamped are the 
Internet Protocol, the seven-layer Open Systems Interconnection 
model—which defines how devices communicate on today’s networks—and the 
von Neumann architecture, the basic design style underpinning almost all 
computers built today.

Many military commanders have been slow to adapt IT for critical tasks 
because they sense the equipment is unreliable, said Col. Tim Gibson. He 
is a program manager for DARPA’s Advanced Technology Office, which is 
leading efforts to radically redefine computer architecture.

“You go to Wal-Mart and buy a telephone for less than $10 and you expect 
it to work,” Gibson said. Yet people usually do not expect the same of 
their computers. “We don’t expect computers to work, we expect them to 
have a problem.”

“If a commander expects a system to have a problem, then how could they 
rely upon it?” Gibson said.

Gibson cast some of the blame on the packet-based nature of Internet 
Protocol, which was not designed for foolproof delivery of messages. The 
protocol cannot guarantee delivery of e-mail, for instance.

“The packet network paradigm probably needs to change,” Gibson said. 
“I’m not advocating throwing out the Internet Protocol completely, but 
we must absolutely have some mechanism for assigning network 
capabilities to different users and that capability has to scale to 
large numbers of devices automatically. The commander wants to be able 
to send a message and have it delivered, completely, accurately and on 

Another limitation with the IP approach is the inability to dynamically 
build networks. The military wants to quickly set up ad hoc networks.

“Static networks are no good for tomorrow’s battlefield, because 
everything will move around all the time,” Gibson said. “What we need is 
dynamic scalability. Today’s networks are stationary and have a static 
infrastructure that provides service to static end-nodes. Moving the 
node outside its standard service area requires reconfiguring something. 
Moving infrastructure always means reconfiguring something.”

As a result, DARPA wants to fund development of new protocols or 
enhancements to the existing IP that will allow nodes, such as 
computers, to automatically sign on to networks in their vicinity.

Another aspects of the networking that DARPA wants to revise is the 
seven-layer OSI stack, long held as the basic foundation for building 
network protocols.

The OSI model was not designed for wireless communications devices, said 
Reggie Brothers, a DARPA program manager.

“The OSI model served us pretty well for the stable, predictable world 
of wireline communications,” Brothers said. “Mobile networks are nothing 
like that. They are unpredictable and highly variable. We need to think 
of different layers of the stack to relate to one another directly, like 
a mesh, instead of one level up to the next.”

The increased complexity of the network stack would let nodes enter a 
network quickly and without human intervention, Brothers said.

The von Neumann architecture will also come under scrutiny from DARPA.

“It is time to ask the harder questions about the ways of computer 
architecture we’ve been using for the past 30 years. Is it time to scrap 
the von Neumann architecture?” asked Anup Gosh, program officer for the 
Advanced Technology Office.

This architecture, which defines the basic essential parts of a computer 
as the processor, control unit, memory and input-output devices, has 
been used as the basis for design for nearly all computers built since 
the 1940s.

One of the limitations inherent in this approach is that when an 
application malfunctions, it can affect other programs, Gosh said. 
Program bugs also are vulnerabilities that can be used by adversaries to 
attack the entire system. What military networks need, Gosh said, is a 
way to isolate software programs at the hardware level.

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