You may be used to seeing rack mounted equipment with wires going everywhere. But there’s nothing ordinary about what’s going on here. [Elecia White] and [Dick Sillman] are posing with the backbone servers they’ve been designing to take networking into the era that surpasses IPv6. That’s right, this is the stuff of the future, a concept called Content Centric Networking.
Join me after the break for more about CCN, and also a recap of my tour of PARC. This is the legendary Palo Alto Research Company campus where a multitude of inventions (like the computer mouse, Ethernet, you know… small stuff) sprang into being.
I’m going to get back to CCN in a minute but let’s go in chronological order:
[Elecia White] — embedded engineer, host of Embedded.fm, and Hackaday Prize Judge — was kind enough to offer me a tour. We started in the museum room of the building where we were met by [Dick Sillman]. He has quite a CV himself, including Director of Engineering at Apple and CTO of Sun Microsystems. It’s no surprise these two are working on something to reshape the technological horizon.
The story I was told while in the museum is that PARC was founded as a free-thinking research arm of the Xerox corporation. The gamble paid off because there were a multitude of innovations that are still around today. I saw the “Notetaker” portable computer, the Alto with its portrait-form-factor CRT monitor, and the original laser printer.
The original thinkers at PARC
One of the most enjoyable parts of this room is a wall plastered with a photograph from the early days. Note the lack of furniture and the comfort of bean-bag-chairs. The only thing differentiating this photo from today’s start-ups is the indoor smoking (and maybe the lack of laptops and smartphones).
The little machine shop
I wasn’t able to take photos of everything, but this machine shop was a fun stop. You walk in and see all the equipment and just know that there’s awesome stuff being prototyped here.
What is surprising is that you walk to the threshold of the next door and if you’re lucky you can peek inside. That’s where the “real” machine shop is and if you’re not an on-duty machinist the threshold is as far as you go. The idea is that you use the small shop to make an example of what you need, then take it to the real shop and they will fabricate however many you need.
To keep the machinist from losing their minds there is a computer monitor next to the door that shows the production state of each job… nobody pesters the machinists!
Lots of rooms with warning signs
Here are just two shots of some of the warning signs you’ll find throughout the building. I somehow missed taking a picture of the biohazard warning. If it’s a piece of equipment useful for research I bet that they have it here.
The building itself feels like a secret fort. Maybe that’s not the best of descriptions, but it’s built in a series of pods placed one after another and all of them have the exact same layout. There are a few different floors in each pod, and sometimes the stairwells simply dead-end despite there being more levels above and below. It would have been a real challenge to find my way back to the front without a guide!
Parts on hand
If you just need that one component to finish the project, there’s a room for that. I found it amusing that [Elecia] and [Dick] were just as interested in poking around to see what is on hand as I was. I suspect they’re usually busy enough that they know exactly what they want before heading to the stock. On the way out I asked if I should shut the door, but this one just stays open, beckoning to every unsuspecting engineer who passes by.
The Future of the Internet
Back to the story at hand: Content Centric Networking. I’ve already mentioned that this is an alternative to IPv6. There are so many addresses available with v6, when are we ever going to run out and need to replace it? That’s not really the point.
CCN looks at a better way to address the transfer of data. Right now everything is based on IP addresses; one specific address maps to one specific location. But our devices aren’t exactly stationary any longer and that trend is going to continue. CCN focuses on the data itself and the device it’s intended for — agnostic of the location — by using names instead of addresses for routing.
There’s a lot to consider with this, like security. I was a bit shocked to find that the system signs every single packet. It doesn’t really matter how the data gets somewhere, or if it falls into the wrong hands. Man in the middle, spoofed addresses, and a slew of other issues can be solved this way. But back to my shock: how can you sign every single packet without a huge speed hit compared to what we have today? And how can you figure out where content is going if there’s no address to send it to?
The answer to speed is the hardware that [Elecia] and [Dick] are working on. They showed me one of their dinner-tray-sized 26-layer router PCBs that gets slotted into the racks in their work area. Impressive to say the least.
The answer to the rest is not completely clear in my mind. But I think that’s about par for the course. Even demonstrations are a bit tough to put together. Above are a few pictures of the test rig for the concept. Each node in the network is named (alpha, bravo, charlie, etc.). They are all connected to each other and all have the credentials to view the data packets created by others. This builds something of a “dropbox” of networked data. Each unit snaps its own images, but all images are displayed on the slideshow of every unit.
To truly grasp CCN you’re going to need a lot more reading. I’ll add some resources below. But before I do I’d like to thank [Elecia], [Dick], and PARC for an exciting and fun morning! I’d also like to mention that I was a guest on embedded.fm this week, talking about all things Hackaday and The Hackaday Prize.
Additional learning resources:
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