National Science Foundation looking for a few good ideas for a whole new network

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It might be time for a whole new type of computer and communications network, one that’s more resilient and more resistant to cybersecurity threats than networks as we know them today. That’s the idea behind a program at the National Science Foundation called Resilient and Intelligent Next-Generation Systems, or RINGS. Acting Deputy Division Director Thyaga Nandagopal spoke to Federal Drive with Tom Temin for the details.

Interview transcript: 

Tom Temin: Mr. Nandagopal, good to have you on.

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: Thank you for having me here, Tom, it’s a pleasure to be back on the show with you.

Tom Temin: Let’s establish one thing here: RINGS doesn’t mean we’re going to bring back token ring networks, are we?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: Absolutely not.

Tom Temin: I date both of us.

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: You remember that. You’re dating yourself there, a little bit.

Tom Temin: I’m dating myself there a little bit. So what do you envision first as the result of this program, and then we’ll get into how the program works?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: OK, I think we all know by now, having gone through a year-long telework experience that we cannot live without our communication networks. We rely on them to do pretty much everything from ordering food to getting our work done. And we know that if these networks go down for a little bit, you know your wifi konks out for a little bit, then you are in deep trouble. You feel lost, you feel unproductive and unhappy, right? We have realized the value of these networks. And we want to make sure that these networks continue to perform under any kind of duress, right? Whether it comes as a result of a security breach, or a hacker trying to actually take down your network, or somebody accidentally cutting down the cable down the street, because they’re trying to dig for something else. Or it’s a weather phenomenon, or something that knocks out your service in the neighborhood. No matter what happens, we need people to feel connected and stay connected so they can continue to get the services that they rely on through digital means. And that is the outcome of this program. We intend to create a framework and a roadmap for how to build a resilient system that can help us stay connected forever.

Tom Temin: Now, we’ve heard about the idea of self healing and resilient networks for quite some time now. Are the basic building blocks in place to build these things now? Or are we needing new science here?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: I think it’s a mixture of both. So in some places, so if you look at a network, let’s go back what a network we’re talking about here, right? The network used to be your ethernet cable and the switch behind it. Now, this is again 20 years before, right – now, your network is your cell phone, your headset, your bluetooth headset, or all the way going back to the base station and the coordinate work and the cloud, which is running on a bunch of data centers, sitting who knows where in the country. And the servers that you are connecting to the application state, the Googles and the YouTubes and Netflix’s and your corporate networks and so forth – all of them. So do we know how to address resilient and self-healing in the context of a specific small network domain? Yes. Do we know how to do that on an end-to-end basis? Not really. So we think that we have building blocks for some of the pieces. But we need to look at this picture holistically. And look at it from the service point of view, not just make sure the network survives. But the bigger point is, you may lose one network. But perhaps you could cut a different network? If your wifi goes down. Maybe you can use a cellular network? If your cell network goes down, maybe you can use a satellite network? We have ways of connecting. If your network goes down, maybe you could use a neighbor’s network, right? But we need to figure out how to connect all of these networks in a holistic fashion, that the user does not see any disruption in service, even though the individual pieces may fail and recover over time.

Tom Temin: And you see this as a function needed not just for consumers, but also for corporate and agency and organizational networks, correct?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: Absolutely. In fact, it’s more than vital for them. It’s essential for their survival. If you look at a consumer, right, yes, for maybe watching YouTube and streaming Netflix, you probably don’t need this. But if you’re doing banking, if you’re relying on talking to your doctor, that’s a corporate network and other side. So enterprise network that requires that resilience, so they can provide the assurance and the quality of service that the customer expects, when they communicate with them, right? And this cuts across not just customer-facing businesses, but also bank-to-bank, right, business-to-business services, and government-to-business services, right? The governments need this as well. So we see this as a vital part of everything that is underlying the digital infrastructure, especially as we go forward.

Tom Temin: We’re speaking with Thyaga Nandagopal, he’s acting deputy division director for the Division of Computer and Network Systems at the National Science Foundation. And to get here tell us programmatically what you’re trying to do here. Do you have a grant program? How does that all work?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: So this is a grant program. The NSF runs grant programs, many by count. We have an ongoing continuous program that funds research in these areas, the individual advancements in technology in the networking and computing systems. We fund $100 million a year typically on these awards, but what we have done with this specific program is to say yes, we want those advancements in those technologies, but we also would like those designs to be made from the ground up with resilience in mind, right? So we are specifically calling out the resilience as a key design criteria from day one as part of the basic design of the system, which may force a rethinking of how we design our networks, right? And that is the main differentiator between this program and others. We have been joined in this effort by 11 other partners, nine leading companies – these include Apple, Ericsson, Google, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Nokia, Qualcomm, and VMware and two federal agencies: the Department of Defense – and the Office of Undersecretary of Defense for Essential Engineering – and the National Institute of Standards and Technology. Each of which have very clear stake in ensuring that the networks that they build that they continue to support are going to be resilient and highly performing. So they have joined us as partners, and each of them are putting money into the program. So it’s a total of $40 million. And we are going to make grants, each up to $1 million. And these grants would run for a three-year period. These grants would be likely made effective early 2022, which is another five, six or seven months from now. And we are hoping that the outcomes of this research would immediately translate as soon as possible because of the active involvement of all of these different partners, who each have an extensive R&D program on their own, that these outcomes that come from this program would map into translatable standards and products very, very quickly.

Tom Temin: And I noticed none of the carriers and the big telecom companies are not mentioned here. Sounds like you don’t want a system where somebody writes a script. And therefore, one network fails over to another network, as opposed to building something from the ground up that does that.

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: We are looking at everything, right? And there is – I just want to make sure that your readers are aware the absence of carriers is not intentional. We have been working with the partners that I just mentioned for many, many years now. And therefore it is just easier for us to get started. Any partnership involves, coming to agreement on the terms of the research, and we’re signing up memoranda of understanding and so on. Logistically, it just happened to be easier for us to get started with this group of people we have worked with before. However, NSF stands open, and we are already talking to multiple other companies who, having heard this announcement are now wanting to come and join us in the subsequent phase of this particular program. So we expect, you know, and we – our doors are open to carriers and others to join, because we do see everybody as being equally benefiting from this kind of effort.

Tom Temin: And do you expect that the intellectual property so developed would be open source?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: We do not require that to be open source. However, the awardees who are likely to be academic institutions have their own policies, and they could choose to make things open source, right? So NSF does not constrain the ability of institutions to decide what kind of intellectual property they want to produce as a result of it. Many institutions do have active policies that say everything we’ll do will be open source, some don’t. And we respect that choice that they have, right? That’s the policy of the federal government that has always been that way. And we continue to do so. And our partners agree on this as well. That is one of the interesting pieces that I want to highlight that while many of the companies that you have seen in this partnership are sometimes known to be very protective of their intellectual property, they do understand that in this kind of research that requires us to rethink how we build networks from scratch, we may have to go back to the basics. And it’s kind of pre-competitive, they really want to give everybody a chance to see what comes out. Recognizing that anything that comes out, any new early concepts that come out, could eventually lead to intellectual property for everyone down the road. Right? You can unleash new industries, new types of products, and that we haven’t heard of today. So they are being very open and are supporting the same flexibility that the government would like to give to its awardees on intellectual property.

Tom Temin: And what is the status of the program in terms of the timeline at this point?

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: At this time we released a solicitation just last month, and we have a webinar for proposals to understand more about the program and ask any questions about it. Coming up on May 27 at 2 p.m. And once that happens, we are hoping that we will get proposals. The deadline for that is July 29. And it will take about six months for us to get all the reviews and everything done. Get the recommendations worked out with all our partners, and we expect to have our awards announced by – I would say – sometime in the first three months of 2022.

Tom Temin: Thyaga Nandagopal is an acting deputy division director for the Division of Computer and Network Systems at the National Science Foundation. Thanks so much for joining me.

Thyagarajan Nandagopal: Absolutely. It was a pleasure and looking forward to seeing your members show up at some of our events.

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