Software-defined networking (SDN), network functions virtualization (NFV), and massively distributed computing dominate the thinking of today’s network engineers as they plan “next-generation” infrastructure.

But what’s in the pipeline for next next-generation networks? Read on for a look at some of the coolest network research projects taking place right now — projects that could have a big impact on the network designs and careers of tomorrow.

Wireless datalinks for drones

future of networking wireless datalinks for drones
The aviation industry isn’t exactly known for being a wireless networking trendsetter. When we fly a commercial airline, we’re lucky if we can check email in-flight. Even if we can do that, bandwidth is usually pretty limited.

But Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) — or drones, as they’re more popularly known — stand to help change that. Academic and industry researchers are now working to make long-distance, high-speed wireless networking feasible. Their research is geared toward streamlining communication between UAVs and manned aircraft, which will no doubt be a hot topic as drones continue to explode in popularity, and take on a greater presence in the skies.


The work has broader implications in the aviation industry and beyond, however. For instance, it’s easy to imagine trains and cars (including those headless ones Google now has roving around), also benefitting from wireless networks that can sustain high bandwidth, across wide distances, at high speeds.
Ambient backscatter

On the topic of major advances in wireless communications, researchers at the University of Washington are working to open new doors in the Wi-Fi world by “backscattering” wireless signals. That means re-using existing radio frequency signals instead of generating new ones. Because the devices don’t generate their own radio signals, they also don’t need any energy to operate.

Imagine being able to use wireless signals for networking where access to power is limited or non-existent and you get a sense of the tremendous possibilities for this new technology.

4D network

This research project, hosted at Carnegie Mellon University, has a hugely ambitious goal: Replace the Internet Protocol (IP) as the basis for computer networking. (Here, 4D refers to four network planes: decision, dissemination, discovery, and data.)

It’s easy, of course, to complain about the inefficiencies and complexities that now plague IP as a result of all the networking applications that have been grafted on to it — applications that were barely conceivable when the protocol was developed decades ago. So these researchers are examining how it could all be done better, especially when it comes to security, one of IP’s weaknesses.

We don’t recommend betting against the venerable Internet Protocol as the basis for real-world networking for a long time to come, but we like some of the concepts behind 4D.
eXpressive Internet Architecture

In a way, this is a more realistic take on the work the 4D network researchers are pursuing. The eXpressive Internet Architecture, or XIA, project aims to build “a single network that offers inherent support for communication between current communicating principals — including hosts, content, and services — while accommodating unknown future entities.”

In other words, the researchers want to engineer a new one-size-fits-all system for network communications that does away with the convoluted and ad hoc mechanisms on which modern networks often rely. Like the 4D network project, XIA also has a strong focus on providing better security than existing standards can provide. See a trend here?
Quantum computing

future of networking quantum computing
While it’s not strictly network-related, quantum computing is fast becoming a more realistic prospect for practical applications. For now, a few laws of physics still stand in the way of unlocking the unfathomable computational speed that quantum hardware stands to deliver. But don’t discount it as the foundation for the IT world of the future. With Google, among others, investing heavily in quantum research, it might only be a matter of time before humanity unlocks the secret to rocketing away from the zeroes and ones of present-day microprocessing.
The Machine from HP

Speaking of nano-age super-computers, HP engineers are also hard at work on new hardware and software that stands to revolutionize the way computers think and communicate.

Called simply the Machine, the platform brings three new computing components to the table: nanoelectric memory called memistors, ultra-fast phototonic buses, and an operating system tailor-made for the device.

What’s more, HP says the Machine, which will be an alternative to the x86-based computers that predominate today, will come to market within the next few years. So this isn’t a nerdy experimental project, but something that’s very likely to be a real and present part of our world in the next decade.
Time cloaking

The goal behind this Purdue University project is to create “bubbles in time” by tracking gaps between photons. If that works, information can be encoded within the gaps and transmitted by laser lights and fiber optics.

The big deal here isn’t communicating with light — that solution is already at the core of modern network infrastructure. The real excitement is the ability to conceal data by making it impossible to detect that a message was even sent.

For now, this remains highly experimental stuff. But it’s easy to see the value in a successful implementation of time cloaking, especially as a way to add new levels of security and privacy to network communications.
Diamond semiconductors

future of networking diamond semiconductors
No one is talking about Diamond Valley yet, but those precious stones that most people currently encounter only in jewellery (or maybe during home improvement projects that require diamond-studded saw blades) may soon take the place of silicon as a core component of computer hardware.

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(SDN)Smaller than silicon wafers, 20 times better at displacing heat, and more efficient as a conductor of electrons, diamonds are already helping to build new generations of devices. As a bonus, synthetic diamonds work just as well in constructing semiconductors as the ones dug up in mines, meaning this new computer hardware technology is also cost-efficient.
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