Wednesday, November 28, 2007

NSF FIND Working Meeting

I'm writing this while stuck at attending an NSF FIND (Future Internet Design) working meeting (Nov 27-28). Part of the FIND program is that there are 3 meetings per year where all the FIND PIs are supposed to get together, to talk about the new network that is the goal of the FIND program. This is my first meeting; I missed the last one. It seems to me that this idea of having PI meetings related to grant proposals is an NSF experiment worth examining, and there are some discussions going on here that may be of broader interest, so I thought I'd report. (If this reads as stream of consciousness, I'm generally typing as things go on.)

One positive for me is the chance to catch up with various networking people who I don't see so regularly. The socializing aspect -- just talking to people, finding out what they're working on, making sure they know Harvard is hiring, all this is good. (Jennifer Rexford and I chatted during a break, and when I sat down after the break, she had already sent me a paper to look at. Which I need to go ask her some questions about... I also finally caught up on some overdue researchy discussion with Dev Shah of MIT; yes, I have to go to DC to meet up with someone from MIT...) In this sense, it's like going to a networking conference, and obviously interacting with peers is one of the pleasures of a conference.

The invited presentations aren't doing much for me, however. They're not highly technical talks -- more high-level talks, connecting network research to network users. (We're hearing two talks right now about issues in the practice of emergency networks in disasters.) It's not that the talks are bad, but it's a bit hard to see their purpose. This is a room full of networking people -- they all have well-developed individual research agendas and know what they think the problems are. I don't think the talks are adding much new. (Let's just say I'm not the only one tapping away at the keyboard when I should be listening to the talk. So again, it's just like a conference.)

Besides invited presentations, there are break-out sessions. I'm sitting in on the "network management" breakout session, which far and away seems the largest. About 25-30 people or so in here. It's actually kind of like a conference panel, only a bit more chaotic with so many people. While the discussion is high-level, and I'm not sure we're headed anyplace specific, it's actually a pretty interesting discussion that highlights the scope of the problems of network management. (So many requirements, so many heterogeneous user classes, so many ill-defined goals, so many ill-defined or at least hard to measure quantities, etc.) Interestingly, the group as a whole seems quite convinced of the importance of what I call theory -- modeling, control, algorithms. (The pro-theory comments seemed to begin from Jennifer Rexford and Anja Feldmann, two incredibly pro-theory and powerful network researchers.) This gives me a good excuse to chime in and further emphasize the importance of theory to network management, which I manage to do repeatedly.

Ellen Zegura is giving a talk about GENI and the GENI Science Council. The GENI Science Council is supposed to come up with a "research plan" for GENI, an experimental facility/infrastructure for the development of the next generation Internet. (Network people rightfully complain it's hard to do experimental research on the current Internet at a large scale, so the plan is to design a research infrastructure for these sorts of problems.) There's a notable shortage of theorists on the council, but they seem to have noticed this and added Joan Feigenbaum and Michael Kearns recently. (From my perspective, if you're going to design a whole new network infrastructure, it seems to me you'd want some theorists to help make sure it's done right.) They're still putting together the research agenda that goes along with the planned facility, and they're still looking for input. Essentially, it seems like they're looking for research examples and research experiments that would utilize or benefit from a GENI-scale system, so that they can explain clearly why building a GENI-scale system is a good idea. So if you have ideas for experiments that you'd like to do on a network-wide scale, you might start looking at what GENI's up to. Overall, GENI seems like such a huge project, and it's still a bit amorphous at this point, so that people are a bit confused. Or maybe that's just me. (I did have to get up at 4 am to catch the early plane down here.)

I talked with Ellen later, and got clarification of the GENI state. I had thought this was well on its way to becoming a possibly multi-hundred-million dollar new NSF project, but apparently it's much less further along than I had thought. If GENI is going to happen, it apparently needs to regain some momentum. And GENI seems a key component of the FIND program; it's hard to develop next-generation network architectures if you don't have a network to try them out on.

Before dinner they have a poster session. It's well done for a poster session -- they have food and a cash bar, and food and drink always seem to be requirements for a poster session where people actually stay and look around. There's a nice mix of work; my favorite is an idea multiple groups seem to be working on that there shouldn't be just one network architecture, but multiple network architectures running over the same network substrate. My interpretation is that you have routers/other infrastructure that can run multiple architectures efficiently in parallel, so running side by side you might have our standard Internet with another network with much stronger (or weaker!) quality of service guarantees, or another network where connections are based on virtual circuits, and so on. This makes sense if you believe that a one-size-fits-all Internet is no longer the best idea.

Day 2 is mostly having the breakout session coalesce their ideas into short presentations. Pablo Rodriguez, of fame for example for his work on Avalanche/network coding at Microsoft, gave a nice talk about the economics of P2P and ISPs; he's left Microsoft to work for Telefonica Barcelona, and has developed some insight from the ISP point of view.

Overall, I ended up with mixed feelings about this working meeting. It's useful to get people together to find out about what everyone is doing and to talk about high-level issues. Conferences already serve some of this purpose, though. Some of the value I got from this meeting derives from the fact I haven't been to a networking conference for a while (I didn't feel like traveling to Japan for SIGCOMM this year...). High-level issues don't necessarily get discussed at conferences, but it's also hard to get 50+ people together to talk about high-level issues and get any sort of agreement that wasn't already obvious. I'm skeptical that 3 such meetings are needed each year. However, the plan seems to be for the next meeting to be a graduate student focused meeting, which may be a good idea -- getting graduate students together to meet and talk like this seems like a potentially very interesting idea.

Going to the meeting will pay off, however, if it leads to any new collaborations. If any FIND people are reading this, and you want to add some theory to your work, send me an e-mail. (Of course, you could also go down the hall and talk to the theorist(s) in your locale, which I'd really strongly recommend, unless I'd be interested, in which case try me first!)

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