Data from individuals using the tools will likely be aggregated by a neutral third party, such as a university research team, and reported back to end users so they can see whether other users are having similar network experiences. The more users that take advantage of the system, the more accurate it will become.
Among the challenges the team has in front of it is building tools that won't be blocked or filtered by governments or ISPs. Feamster says one possibility to circumvent this might even include pulling a page from the way peer-to-peer based botnets work to elude security measures. "Could we borrow some of the design ideas from some of that type of infrastructure to build a resilient indication network that sends us good messages?"
Encouraging users to install the tools his team develops will be a challenge, Feamster acknowledges. The team is working to make the tools really easy to use, and a preliminary version takes the form of a Google Chrome extension (not that this is a Google-specific technology effort).
It's also possible that by encouraging enterprise IT shops to adopt the tools that broader use of the tools will result, Feamster says. The tools Georgia Tech is developing might help system admins troubleshoot by figuring out whether performance problems are caused by internal or external networks, he says.
Asked if he personally had experienced much in the way of mysterious Internet slowdowns or blocked access, Feamster said yes, but that the problem always wound up being related to the choice of equipment he was using in his home, such as a DSL modem that had more buffering than it should have had. And in fact, the Georgia Tech researchers are examining ways to drill down into information about how a user's home network infrastructure or choice of ISP might affect the network performance they see. The researchers have been deploying programmable home network gateway devices that replace the users' existing gateways and taking a variety of active measurements of the users' access links to better understand what causes performance degradation.
The $1 million Google grant is for 2 years, though another $500,000 could be awarded for a third year.
Read more about wide area network in Network World's Wide Area Network section.