Canadian project defies Internet odds

The problem with the Internet is that it was never meant to be what it has become.

Today, the the original military network has mushroomed into a lawless cyber-society.What’s needed is a sheriff to bring order to this wild frontier. In IT parlance, “network management” is that marshal. But mapping large business networks and optimizing the flow of data traffic across them is just about the toughest thing to do in IT. Some technical experts have suggested there’s simply no way to do this job accurately on a network the size of the Internet.

But Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Canada (PSEPC) begged to differ. It took on the challenge two years ago, defying convention to build a network management system that could actually assess the vulnerability of the Internet to physical threats.

“This was a proposal to look specifically at Internet-related risks, using GIS [geographic information systems] to capture and profile these risks,” says Lathif Masood, project manager for the enterprise solutions group for ESRI Canada Ltd.

ESRI and IP networking consultant Solana Networks Inc. of Ottawa were part of a team that, over a period of five months, built the technology for a revolutionary network management system able to map a vast topology like the Internet against a template that provided environmental, geographic and power grid views.

The PSEPC management project’s applications and underlying technologies have already proved themselves in a simulated situation. It has yet to be deployed live, but there is tremendous interest in the system – according to says Gegs Jones, vice-president of business development for Solana, it was demonstrated to the U.S. Homeland Security agency, which in turn directed the U.S. Air Force to investigate how it might be used as an intrusion detection system for geographically locating potential on-line attackers, for example.

As for deployment in Canada, Jones says, “It’s something we would envision — not just for the Internet, but for other networks as well.” There’s a strong business case for larger businesses and financial institutions to use this system, since network outages can cost a company between two per cent and 16 per cent of annual revenue, according to some estimates.

“The research part is over,” says Mahood. “It shows GIS can be a tremendous asset to monitoring the Internet.”

But advancing the system’s capabilities further — beyond simply knowing where network communications devices are located, to a system with the ability to do deep packet inspection on the Internet similar to the way traffic is managed on smaller networks — will be much tougher.

“I don’t see that happening soon,” Masood says. “The technology is there. To get further, we need support from the powers that hold the data.”

That includes major corporations, utility companies and others who currently use customized or proprietary schemes for data transmission. A common language is needed, or at least keys to decipher the multitude of different schemes. The challenge is to convince everyone to cooperate.

Advancing beyond what the PSEPC has done will require a collaborative philosophy. It’s the old IT security story that such teamwork ultimately benefits everyone.

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McLean is editor-in-chief of IT World Canada and can be reached at [email protected].

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