Search Engines from Mars, Web Directories from Venus

Talk about a far out project: The Internet Engineering Task Force has just released an "architectural definition" of the Interplanetary Internet (IPN). The idea is to plan for robust Internet communications among planets, satellites, asteroids, robotic spacecraft and crewed vehicles as humankind inexorably moves from Terra Firma into neighboring regions of the solar system.

Research for the IPN architecture is being done at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) operated by Caltech for NASA. Partial funding for the effort comes from the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that sponsored the original Internet design work. The lead author of the Internet draft is Vint Cerf, widely regarded as one of the "fathers" of the Internet.

The IPN isn't just an extension of the Internet we know and use today, though some parts are similar. Current TCP/IP protocols that make the Net work on earth are expected to work just as well on the surface of other planets or moons, on space craft and orbiting space stations, all of which involve data exchange over fairly short distances. Long distance communication is another story, however.

The problem with interplanetary communications is that even at the speed of light, round trip communications just between Earth and Mars range from about 8 minutes to over 40 minutes. Signals degrade with distance, and there's also the problem of the planets, asteroids, and spacecraft constantly changing position with respect to one another.

So the IPN won't be able to use the "telephony" model we're accustomed to. Rather, it will use a "pony express" model, similar to the "store and forward" approach used by email. This means the IPN will actually consist of a network of Internets, interconnected by a system of gateways that cooperate to form the stable backbone across interplanetary space. This design will make the IPN the ultimate P2P network.

Searching the IPN will require a major mindset change for all of us. "Instant" results will be a thing of the past; with the IPN delays of minutes, hours, or even days will be commonplace. This means your queries had better be spot-on, otherwise you might spend an entire year searching for a single result.

But don't despair: These architectural challenges open up vast possibilities for new and alternative approaches to search. Autonomous agents will become critical, roaming around the solar system on our behalf, always on the lookout for things that might interest us. Indeed, we'll likely see "federations" of agents that cooperate with one another to essentially create search engine-like databases for entire planets or regions of the solar system without any human involvement.

If this all sounds like a bunch of la-la sci-fi blathering, think back ten years to when the Internet was just beginning to get popular. Search engines, web directories, instant messaging, ecommerce -- all of these parts of the Net that are commonplace today were future technologies a mere decade ago.

Indeed, the authors of the IPN draft argue that the research done to enable the Interplanetary Internet will have very real, tangible benefits to improve the terrestrial Net. These will include improvements to optical systems (more speed) enhanced wireless networks (Net connections anywhere) and self-configuration and maintenance of networks (reduced or zero down time).

Though the draft is a bit technical, it's a worthwhile read, especially the first few pages. There's an absolutely fabulous "Desiderata of Interplanetary Internetworking" on page two, that serves as an excellent philosophical overview of the project amply laden with pragmatic rules of thumb. It ends with these words:

"Therefore be at peace with physics, and expect not to manage the network in closed control loops -- neither in the limiting of congestion nor in the negotiation of connection parameters nor even in on-demand access to transmission bands. Each node must make its own operating choices in its own understanding, for all the others are too far away to ask. Truly the solar system is a large place and each one of us is on his or her own. Deal with it."

Not a bad philosophy for our own daily lives.

Interplanetary Internet (IPN): Research Draft

Internet Society IPN Special Interest Group
Want to participate in the development of IPN? Join the IPN Special Interest Group and work with the folks who are turning this visionary Internet into reality. Non-members may also read (but not post to) the discussion boards.

MSN "Argos" Search Beta Launched

MSN has quietly launched the next release of its flagship search service. Code named "Argos," the new service has some pretty interesting new features. These include:

- Tight integration with Encarta Enquire. Argos will take selected queries and call Encarta Enquire. If Encarta has good results for the query, it returns XML which is rendered inline (depending on the query, sometimes displaying pictures, article synopses, and article subheadings).

- Always-on spell correction.

- Enhanced query refinement. MSN Search has unified its "popular search topics" and the directory hierarchy, and has added a new "broaden your search" feature.

- Enhanced Inktomi relevance for less common queries.

MSN "Argos" Search Beta

Danny Sullivan will be taking an in-depth look at Argos in the Search Engine Report. To ensure you get his review and analysis, make sure you are signed up for the Search Engine Report newsletter at

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