LISA '12 Keynote: Vint Cerf's "The Internet of Things and Sensors and Actuators!"

(this post written by Ben Cotton and Greg Riedesel)

One of the many benefits of LISA is being able to interact with the giants in the field. Organizing committee member Patrick Cable discovered this first hand when he had the opportunity to ask a question of Vint Cerf. Vint Cerf's resume is long and distinguished, but he may be best known for his invention of TCP/IP. It should come as no surprise that he received a very warm welcome as LISA '12's keynote speaker.

Cerf began his talk by discussing the Internet of Things. While IP-enabled toasters and lightbulbs used to be a joke, they now exist. Over 908 million devices are visible on the Internet, representing 2.405 billion users. The Internet has changed considerably in the 40 years since TCP/IP was first introduced: IPv6, internationalized domain names, generic top-level domains, mobile devices, and the "smart grid" have all changed the digital landscape in recent years. "Things" will not be going away, either; sensor networks provide important feedback on both the digital and physical environment, and new uses are constantly being developed.

Cerf illuminated his point with a story about the wine cellar in his house. A while ago he wired his home with smart sensors that can track environmental conditions, which included his wine cellar. When it gets too warm it alerts him via SMS (doing so all week in one case, when there was a failure as he was out of town). He got the idea to see if anyone has been in there, he has kids, and set that up. Then realized there was no way to see if any wine left the room, he then added RIFD tags to his bottles, creating an inventory system.

Cerf used this anecdote to talk about several of the problems facing an internet-of-things. With such a distributed sensor network, where do the controllers reside? It will be different for residential and commercial applications, and we’re still figuring out the implications.

Because of the continued growth of the Internet, there are many challenges to be faced. Governments and international organizations are beginning to regulate not only the technical aspects of the Internet, but also the content. The last time the World Conference on International Telecommunications released its International Telecommunication Regulations, the Internet was just a few years old and largely unknown outside of academia; now it is pervasive.

The internet also presents issues for the preservation of data and information, what Cerf calls "digital vellum." Applications in the future may not be able to read current data, assuming the data the media is stored on can even be read. Backwards compatibility can't be maintained forever, so there is a real concern about how we can preserve our legacy for future generations. "If we don't do something about this," Cerf told the audience, "people in the 22nd century will wonder about us, but they won't know much about us."

Cerf ended his talk by discussing a coming challenge in networking: getting data to and from space. Interplanetary networking needs to be delay- and interrupt-tolerant. The speed of light is too slow for TCP to work to Mars and beyond. Proposed protocols will involve repurposing mission-complete spacecraft as nodes in an interplanetary Internet. These projects make Cerf feel like he's living in science fiction, but as he reminded the audience in closing: "That's what engineering is all about: making science fiction a reality."

(Video of the keynote is available at