Robots may someday manage your networks

Xerox Palo Alto Research Center (PARC) is trying to make network administrators extinct.

The document company’s free-thinking research arm is plotting the networks of the future, and the future of network management doesn’t include people.

“We are working on creating self-describing, self-organizing, self-diagnosing and self-repairing networks,” said John Seely Brown, director of Xerox PARC, one of Xerox’s half-dozen research facilities.

PARC, which is home to inventions such as Ethernet, the mouse and the graphical user interface, is looking at how to sidestep human intervention by creating robots that can change size, shape and abilities depending on the task at hand.

The robots, partially funded by the U.S. Department of Defense, will be able to head into various terrains and walk, run, climb or crawl depending on the obstacles they encounter, such as a low wall or a small tunnel.

Adapting this technology to networks will not be much of a stretch, according to Brown, who said that tiny robots can be created to travel into printers and remove paper jams or work their way through networks to find and fix problems.

As they move along paths into different areas of the network, the robots could change size and flip through knowledge databases to tackle problems specific to that area, such as a malfunction in a router or a switch. The robots could even be minuscule enough to act as microscopic fingers that move paper through a printer.

While the robots will not debut for several years, other researchers at PARC are trying to take advantage of immediate electronic commerce opportunities for Xerox. Brown said his goal is for 25 per cent of PARC projects to become Xerox products.

Some of Xerox PARC’s hotter prospects currently in the works are the document bank project and the concept behind the Law of Surfing.

Forget storage-area networking — the future could be in document banks.

The PARC’s document bank project examines the theory of document storage as an electronic service. Document banks are central repositories where companies and individuals will store important documents, such as contracts and corporate financial information, said Bernardo Huberman, a research fellow at Xerox PARC.

Though no document banks exist today, Huberman said he expects the idea to take off soon.

Today, companies store important documents throughout their networks. But Huberman said that much as people keep copies of their birth certificates and mortgage papers in a bank’s safety deposit box, companies and individuals are looking for a similar service on-line.

“These [on-line] banks will serve the same function that banks now serve for marriage certificates and house deeds,” he said. “Documents in their various versions will be safeguarded in some way for a fee paid to a service provider.”

The storage service provider would have immense storage capacity with high-end security, such as private keys, and back-up capabilities. Customers would link to their document banks via the Internet or through a private connection.

Although Xerox has no plans to get in the document bank business right now, Huberman said he hopes the company will do so in the future.

As more businesses head on-line, figuring out how people surf through sites is becoming increasingly important. PARC researchers think they’ve cracked the code.

Using a test group of Web surfers, researchers studied the clicking patterns of users following a trail of information. From those observations and mathematical studies, they were able to derive the Law of Surfing, a mathematical equation that predicts the limits to how far people will click through sites based on the relevance of information presented.

Huberman said the Law of Surfing can be used to help Web site developers figure out how to better design their pages by telling them how far people are willing to go to get what they want. It can also help marketers determine how best to present product information because the law predicts the patience level of on-line consumers.

But Huberman said there are other noncommercial benefits to the project. He is hoping the Law of Surfing will help reduce Internet congestion by encouraging site developers to create direct and logical paths to information.

Currently, surfers have to click back and forth through a site to get the information they need. But if information was presented in a more linear way, users would not have to hop all over the site.

Also, if Web site developers start weeding out pages based on equations that state people won’t read beyond a certain point, there will be less clutter on the Internet, Huberman said.

Another positive outcome of the Law of Surfing would be more accurate search engine results. If pages are more direct and offer information in a linear fashion, then clicking on a query result will lead readers to more relevant hits.

Again, congestion on the Internet could be reduced because people would not need to re-enter their searches as often.

Eventually, it could also help Web site managers develop better caching strategies because they would be able to predict the popular paths through their sites.

Xerox PARC researchers will present their findings this summer at a conference in Boston.

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