The best gee-whiz technologies

By Julie Bort, Network World |  Tech & society, Tech & society

A self-vaccinating Internet, microelectronic devices tiny enough to be injected into your bloodstream, atomic Velcro -- sound like science fiction? Try science fact. Researchers have made significant breakthroughs on all three in the past year, and envision them changing the complexion of your infrastructure in three, 10 or 20 years.

Consider the "self-healing" network being built by engineers at IBM's T.J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y. Modeled after the human immune system, this is the likely future of virus protection and intrusion detection. Vulnerable end-user nodes at every company connected to the Internet are inoculated with antivirus code. When the code detects viruslike activity, it alerts a central agency computer -- a mainframe-type system likened to a doctor by Arvind Krishna, director of IBM's Foundations of Internet Research. That computer analyzes the virus, identifies its unique traits or signature, and promptly notifies all PCs on the self-healing network to block that signature. From discovery to fix in minutes.

Krishna thinks this immune system could eventually operate by identifying what each program should do -- rather than identifying acts that should not be allowed. If software publishers included affidavits of authorized outputs, the immune system could block activities that didn't conform to declared outputs.

IBM's first-generation self-healing network is in beta trials with Symantec, which has added the first versions of IBM's inoculation code to Norton AntiVirus 7.0 Corporate Edition. The immune system's effectiveness hinges on mass subscription to a central "doctor" service, which would be provided by ISPs. At best, it'll be a few years before any immune system scales to Internet heights.

The self-healing network is part of IBM's $300 million, five-year project to develop technologies needed to support billions of users and trillions of devices on the Internet. The project includes improved versions of capacity on demand, content distribution and metered services.

Tiny agents

As billions of users come online, the 'Net will need bigger pipes. That's one of the challenges researchers at Sandia National Laboratories are tackling through their work on MicroElectroMechanical Systems (MEMS), devices measuring only a few microns -- smaller than a dust mite. They're working in an area of MEMS known as LIGA, a German acronym that translates to lithographic electroplating molding, says Jill Hruby, deputy director of Sandia's Materials Engineering Sciences Center in Livermore, Calif. LIGA devices perform precise mechanical duties, such as holding optical fibers in place for accurate positioning.

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