Hyperties: “Travel adaptors” for the cloud?

I have spent the day here in Berlin attending my second advisory board meeting for the EU research project reTHINK. I’m chewing over what I learnt about the possible future of the telecoms and cloud industry.

There has been a decades-long tussle between the communications and computing parts of the ICT industry. Both sides wish to exert power over the digital economy. Sometimes this tussle works for the common good, sometimes not. Either way, we’re heading into a world of pervasive digital infrastructure where networks, devices and applications have to play nicely together.

Today’s “cloud” is characterised by a broadband “dumb pipe” that takes us to “someone else’s computer”. The pendulum is now in the process of swinging away from the “dumb pipe” model, towards adding functionality back into networks (by which I include gateway devices, like a home hub). SDN/NFV is just one example of this trend.

The nature of the “grown up” application problems we face forces the network and “edge” to transcend their current oppositional “over the top” relationship. Instead they have no choice but to adopt a more cooperative one. Evidence? The deal between Netflix and Comcast. So one starting point is streaming media and real-time comms.

Future “smart everything” services have a wide set of needs that need to be supplied: not just connectivity, but also secured identity, data persistence, managed performance, legal compliance, and more. This is driving new distributed computing architectures where the historic definitions of “device”, “network access” and “data centre” become blurred or unhelpful.

The reTHINK project is one of many working to anticipate this meta-shift. (I am also on the advisory board for ARCFIRE, promoting RINA as a more general architecture than Internet Protocol for all distributed computing.) The hard thing with such new ideas is finding how they fit with your existing mental map of the world, and explaining it.

In this new “Internet of Everything” world, we are going to want to “plug in” many devices into the “telco-cloud information grid” (formerly known as the Internet). This interface needs to be defined not just at the electrical level (like a physical plug), but also at higher logical levels: network access (possibly wireless, so no plug!), transport protocols, media control, and applications.

The reTHINK project can be considered a bit like a “travel adaptor” for the “5G telco-enhanced cloud”. As a possible metaphor, take a look at how Apple creates a proprietary adaptor system for the electrical aspect of “roaming” between power grids.

There’s a physical metal flange to retain different adaptors that can be slotted into the power supply. (Apple, for understandable reasons, also have proprietary cables, protocols, plugs and sockets for their various iDevices, rather than using USB standards.) You can get more adaptors from any Apple store, with margins that would make a telco blush.

Now, instead of electrical power, imagine a similar thing for network protocols, implemented using a non-proprietary software framework. The secured adaptors are downloadable over the network. It’s a bit like how you have plug-ins for browsers, but done for the inside of the network control system, so network services are exposed to application developers for use.

Sophisticated identity management and internal messaging capabilities are bolted on. No doubt billable events will be found somewhere down the line. (Old telco joke: does a service really exist if it doesn’t create a call detail record?)

So (in my wild imagination), you might someday use applications from many cloud providers (Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and so on), and these may be deployed on many network providers. Project reTHINK’s “hyperties” provides the cloud “travel adaptor” (and supporting infrastructure) to make this work, so as to support access things like quality-assured performance (aka “fast lanes”).

We will have multiple clouds competing for our business (maybe we’ll just call it “the fog”). Just as with Internet Protocol to join networks, we now need new “Intercloud protocols”. reTHINK is a kind of BIOS for the cloud, a “Protocol Transfer Protocol”, to bootstrap the device and application container, so as to be able to access the right network services. It’s the starter motor for the distributed cloud computation engine.

Another analogy might be that what USB does locally for a device, reTHINK does remotely over the network. It provides a “Universal Standards Bus” to download new “standards” to interoperate “smart” objects. The application and network are decoupled, but not (as in the dumb pipe model) in a state of bitter divorce. They are allowed to engage in consensual acts of information exchange with shared semantics.

A side-effect is that the identity infrastructure makes “roaming” the default. This is not the horror you might imagine. It means, for example, you might be your own identity provider for your family, or choose a non-telco one (especially if you are an enterprise). So reTHINK is also a sort-of “Roaming 2.0” framework for the Internet of Everything, but deployable at all scales from personal area networks upwards.

Inside of the technology is a meta-language for standards, with a generic framework that is a Latin or Esperanto of message exchange. Its goal is to speed up flow of new standardised and interoperable technologies in the telco ecosystem, which is famously slothful.

By exploiting existing telco identity systems (phone numbers and SIM cards being obvious ones) it also starts with a credible “trust base” of users and use cases.  The future role of the telco operator will have to evolve in this kind of architecture. The policy system may look more like a credit rating agency, performing risk management of resource access against different types of identity collateral.

Something like this seems both necessary and inevitable. We need to move from static single-purpose designs (like the old telephone system) to far more dynamic ones. We also need to rebalance the relationship between the “edge” and “core”, and dissolve artificial distinctions between application platforms and network access.

The “contextual computing cloud” for wearable tech and smart homes, cars and cities simply won’t work under the current networked computing paradigm. Europe has lots of very liveable places with good public transport, and this is an interesting technological bet on upgrading them for digital transport too.


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