The Emerging Paranet
by Eric Wagner (with Mariva H. Aviram)
Tuesday, May 15, 2001

Giant newspaper headlines declare, "The Web is Dead." As the dot-com industry implodes now as quickly as it had exploded in 1995, it would seem that the Web is, indeed, dying, if not already dead. But before we lower the coffin into the ground, we might heed a slight stirring, the quiet sound of something unostentatious, yet imperative, which may be about to resurrect our hope in networked computer technology. The stirring, a phoenix whispering from the ashes of the Web, may be the first sound of the next revolution. IT development veteran Eric Wagner dubs this revolution the Paranet.

Surfing Spiders: merging metaphors

There's a spider on my wall, meandering slowly toward my computer. It seems to be lost. Perhaps it can't figure out where to build its web. I'm not sure there is much for it to catch around here, anyway. 

As I watch the wandering fuzzy arachnid, I realize that the spider is like a dot-com. Just like the spider, the dot-com can't figure out how or where to make its web or how to make a living (generating revenue or ensnaring bugs) even when a web is woven. But I won't continue this analogy. (For now.) It's just a bit too obvious. 

Before I noticed the spider, I was thinking about how the Web isn't really a web. It may seem like a web of connections, but it's really just a collection of links presented in different ways. Some color here, some flash there, and voilį, you are, to use that (already) mixed metaphor, surfing the Web. 

What else is there to the Web? Sure, there are "revolutionary" technologies that streamline proactive channels, and envisioneer scalable infomediaries, as well as mesh collaborative schemas (see the Bullshit Generator for other useful and innovative technologies). But is there anything really new? 

Here are some ideas that could be new, or at least unusual. Of course, even good ideas can be destroyed by bad companies. In any case, these ideas could make the Web, well, more like a web.

1. eXtensible Resource Name System: 100 Degrees of Solitude

According to its corporate home page, XDegrees is "peering into the next wave of Internet apps." (Read the entire InfoWorld article from which this quote is borrowed.) This quote could in fact be true; however, one couldn't be faulted if one assumed this to be simply standard dot-com hyperbole.

I am not sure about the future of XDegrees, but I am sure that its engineers are on to something: capitalizing on the unused capacity of everyday, ordinary client workstations. Most companies have a vast amount of unused file storage and CPU time, not on the servers, but on all of the client systems in toto. In fact, in many companies, this unused storage and processing power far exceeds the amount of resources on their servers.

One much-hyped way to put to use the potential resources is with peer-to-peer networking. Of course, this is hardly a new idea: peer-to-peer networking has been around for years (remember Microsoft's gem, circa 1992, Windows for Workgroups?) The new twist on peer-to-peer has been the addition of a location repository (ą la Napster), or a distributed-location repository (such as Gnutella). But the uses of these systems are limited, because they are simplistic and non-extensible.

The XDegrees system is based on something its developers call eXtensible Resource Name System, or XRNS. XRNS extends DNS to encompass all network information including machines, devices, applications, and data. What is most interesting is that the system is not location dependent; that is, a specific document or application need not be stored in a single location. XRNS keeps track of the multiple locations-but access requires only one address. This is like combining DNS, load balancing, file sharing, and even a disk-array-based RAID.

Why is this so interesting? Because, with XRNS, for the first time the power of client-server can be melded, synergistically, with peer-to-peer. XRNS can be controlled centrally, although, unlike client-server systems that rely solely on expensive central servers for storing applications, files, and data, XRNS can use the power of all network-attached systems. This type of network would add an astounding amount of computer capacity-capacity that already exists-to corporate, and perhaps worldwide, networks.

 2. Project JXTA: The Joy of Juxtaposition

Perhaps the future does not need us, as Sun Microsystems chief scientist Bill Joy says. The future, however, does need Project JXTA (or something like it). JXTA (short for Juxtapose) is an open source Sun Microsystems project whose purpose is to create a peer-to-peer network protocol that allows for fully controllable distributed applications and data.

What is intriguing about Project JXTA is that it represents the first attempt to create an open source (as well as open API and protocol) peer-to-peer communication system. Although peer-to-peer has existed before, it has been mostly limited to file sharing and distributed computing, such as SETI@home, which is a screen-saver, running on millions of computers worldwide, that analyzes radio telescope data for signs of extraterrestrial intelligence.

Project JXTA has the potential to completely change the structures of the Internet and the Web. In many ways, JXTA combines, even blurs, the Internet and the Web as never before. (Perhaps the surfing spider isn't such a mixed metaphor after all.) Essentially, JXTA allows for a fully utilized and multi-connected web of information, data, connections, and ideas on a global scale.

Exactly what will come out of Project JXTA isn't known yet. But it is not a stretch to imagine publicly-accessible, large-scale distributed-processing networks whose computational power up to this point has only been possible with supercomputers or single-purpose distributed-processing systems like SETI@home.

3. The Semantic Web: What You Say!!

Director of the World Wide Web Consortium Tim Berners-Lee, in an article in Scientific American, introduces an idea that seems to have come straight out of a William Gibson or Neal Stephenson novel. Berners-Lee's proposal for what he calls "The Semantic Web" is, much like his original concept of the World Wide Web, a science fiction idea.

The last time you used a search engine to find specific information, how long did it take? Most searches return an exasperating amount of useless, unrelated, and irrelevant information. For example, if I am looking for information about spiders (the live, creepy-crawly type), a quick search will probably return a mix of links about automated Web spiders along with information about biological spiders. Try it for yourself: go to and search for "spider".

A key feature of The Semantic Web is the supercharged functionality it adds to XML. The Semantic Web extends XML to include not only document data types but also relationships between types. An example in Berners-Lee's Scientific American article is the representation of a zip code. A zip code could be called "zip code" in one document type, but a "postal code" in another. The Semantic Web adds functionality to XML that can link multiple names for the same type of information. It also uses XML to create document types (meta-document types, actually), that assist what Berners-Lee refers to as agents to read multiple and disparate pieces of information and documents in a way that dynamically pulls desired information from the multiple sources.

In addition, The Semantic Web not only uses automated agents, it almost humanizes them. The Semantic Web's agents, exploiting the supercharged XML, are personalized search and organizational systems that individuals can tailor to their own uses. Of course, many tech development companies have, for years, claimed and boasted that their products can tailor computerized personal assistants. In this case, however, a fully specified protocol allows (requires, really) the agents to communicate amongst themselves.

Much of what Berners-Lee describes exists today on an ad hoc basis. The Semantic Web implements a common standard for storing descriptive information-what Berners-Lee calls ontologies-that creates links and relationships between all types of information. Such a standard makes possible a fully connected web of information-information connected in a meaningful way that could, for example, tell us how surfers and spiders are related.

The Paranet

These three ideas-XDegrees's XRNS, Sun's JXTA, and Berners-Lee's The Semantic Web-are related in the sense that they all venture beyond simple extensions to the Web. But are they really new? One test of true novelty is to see if there exists a buzzword for these ideas. If none exists, then a concept is either novel or useless. No buzzword for this type of network innovation exists yet ("The Semantic Web" and "XRNS" aren't all that catchy). My suggestion is paranet, prefixing "net" with "para-," which means "beside," "beyond," or "similar to." A paranet (lower-case for an insulated network), or the Paranet (capitalized to represent the global, inclusive network), could be the technology of not-too-distant future networks, based on the networking technology we currently use, with similar interfaces that run beside current networks and exceed far beyond their current capabilities.

The spider is no longer on my wall. Perhaps it has been inspired to build its web. The dot-goners, I mean, dot-commers (including me), are no longer clogging the Silicon Valley freeways. Perhaps they are about to create their paranets. I have already begun weaving my own.

Copyright © 2001 Eric Wagner and Mariva H. Aviram. All rights reserved.

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