With fiber-optic communication expanding throughout the world, our current Internet is quickly gaining speed. Still, downloading high-resolution pictures or streaming online videos can take time. Luckily for YouTube addicts, researchers from MIT are devising an Internet 100 to 1,000 times faster than today's connection speeds.
To transmit data, the Internet relies on an international system of optical fibers, which are more efficient than electrical signals. When optical signals reach routers, however, they are temporarily converted to electrical signals. Because routers organize large amounts of data from many different places, they must temporarily store information. They achieve this by using electrical signals, which are easier to manipulate than optical signals. In order to be retransmitted, the signals must be converted back to optical. Although currently necessary, this process wastes time and energy; the Internet thus becomes slow and environmentally unfriendly.
Fiber-optic cables already provide speed and reliability to today's Internet. A team of researchers at MIT is developing an even faster Internet that uses an energy-saving technique called "flow-switching."
The MIT researchers—headed by Vincent Chen, the Joan and Irwin Jacobs Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the university—sought a method that would bypass the router's conversions and lead to a more efficient Internet. After a 20-year hunt, the researchers seem to have found a solution. The new method, called "flow switching," establishes a specific path between high-volume places. For certain wavelengths, routers would then receive in one direction and transmit immediately in another. Without many different possible paths, the need to store information disappears.
On a small scale, this system has already started to develop beyond the lab. Large companies like Google have huge server banks in several places. Such companies rent specific wavelengths from telecommunications companies, and then have sole access to these pathways. If such flow-switching was done on a larger scale, the Internet would become much faster and waste less power.
An especially promising aspect of flow-switching is the potential to trade power for speed and vice versa. Perhaps with the energy crisis of today, users wouldn't mind only a 50-fold increase in speed with a proportional decrease in required energy.