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Future Internet: A Thing Of Beauty And Promise

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(CORDIS) — “Growth in the future will depend more and more on harnessing information technology,” noted European Commission President José Manuel Barroso in his recent State of the Union speech, in which he emphasised the need for ‘a digital single market, which will benefit each and every European by around EUR 1500 per year.’ The Internet world we live in today shows that we already depend on information technology for many fundamental aspects of our lives. We socialise, do banking, gamble, and book everything from holidays to hair appointments, all online. EU-funded research is helping to build a Future Internet that will take these transformations further.

The Internet of tomorrow, and the web of tomorrow, will need to be even more powerful, more connected, more intuitive and more a part of our everyday lives, at home, at work and on the move. This Internet of services, things and infrastructure, will include everything from smart appliances that talk to each other to clothes that monitor our health, from cars that can’t crash to mobile technologies and cloud platforms that run our businesses. The Internet will truly become the all-pervasive nervous system of the planet.

The future, now!

This is the mantra of the Commission’s ‘Future Internet public-private partnership’ (FI-PPP) which is working to deliver a ‘shared vision for harmonised European-scale technology platforms and their implementation’. This means bringing together the relevant policy, legal and regulatory frameworks and mechanisms to support the Digital Agenda for Europe – Europe’s efforts to create an online ‘Digital single market’ spanning seamlessly across all 27 Member States, and, more broadly, an inclusive knowledge society.

The FI-WARE project, the core platform for the FI-PPP, is working to boost the EU’s global competitiveness by introducing an innovative infrastructure for cost-effective e-services creation and delivery, with the necessary quality of service guarantees. The key deliverables will be an open architecture and a reference implementation for a new service infrastructure, building on the reusable building blocks developed in earlier research projects. This infrastructure should support emerging Future Internet services and show quantifiable improvements in the productivity, reliability and cost of service development and delivery. Use-cases will include the ‘environmental services’, ‘public safety’ and ‘logistics’ sectors.

FI-PPP supports eight such ‘use-case’ projects which follow an industry-driven approach to the R&D lifecycle. For example the Finseny use-case is taking a holistic view of the energy sector, from de-centralised generation to storage to demand, with the aim of developing smarter energy solutions and infrastructure to meet Europe’s needs in 2020 and beyond. The project aims to identify the ICT requirements of ‘smart energy systems’, leading to the definition of new solutions and standards, verified in large-scale pan-European smart energy trials. Project results should contribute to the emergence of sustainable ‘smart energy infrastructure’, based on new products and services, enabling new functionality while reducing costs and relieving the environment.

Another use-case, the FI-PPP Instant Mobility project, has created a concept for a virtual ‘transport and mobility internet’, a platform for services that supports radically new types of connected applications for different kinds of travellers. They will receive personalised and real-time solutions to help reach their destination according to current personal preferences and constraints, real-time traffic status and public transport availability along the journey. Local authorities, public transport operators and professional drivers should all benefit from the project’s open information platform, enabling new ways of optimising urban traffic while enhancing the safety and privacy of travellers and promoting car sharing and car-pooling.

Working together

Apart from FI-PPP, the EU also supports hundreds of other research and technology-oriented collaborative projects, particularly in the domains of ‘Pervasive and trusted network and service infrastructures’, under the Seventh Framework Programme (FP7) for ICT research. Projects focus on a range of subjects from fundamental long-term research to more applied R&D, in domains such as Future Internet architecture, networks, media, search, services, applications, and more.

Take for example the IoT-A ‘European lighthouse’ integrated project, which is bringing new meaning to the ‘Internet of things’ (IoT). The idea of a ‘globally interconnected continuum of devices, objects and things’ draws on advances in sensor technology and ubiquitous use of ‘Radio frequency identification’ (RFID) tags in everything from shopping bags to shipping crates. But with this mass of ‘talking’ things the Internet of yesterday is struggling to keep up, its foundations are creaking as the quantities of traffic and devices increase. IoT-A (where ‘A’ stands for architecture) is building and testing designs for a better, stronger and more secure foundation for the Future Internet to handle the growing needs of this Internet of things.

iCORE meanwhile plans to put IoT into a ‘cognitive framework’ to ensure users and stakeholders (owners of the ‘things’ or objects and the means of communications) can reap its benefits. According to the project team, the cognitive framework will include three levels of functionality: virtual objects (representations of real things like sensors and devices which shield the user from the underlying technologies), composite virtual objects (combinations of interoperable virtual objects and associated services) for delivering tailored services, and building blocks reflecting the user/stakeholder perspective.

One application being considered for these virtual objects and composites is the ‘smart city’, where information about a city (on entertainment, traffic, public services and utilities) is packaged, personalised and composed on the fly in readily usable formats and media. Other application domains for iCORE’s cognitive framework could be ‘smart meeting’, ‘smart home’ and ‘smart business’ which offer value-added services through, for example, self-configuring networks and objects, and better interactivity among users.

From the Internet of things, we venture to the Internet of innovation. Composing future Internet services on the fly turns users into service developers, blurring the separation between actors. According to the Webinos project, we need an open innovation community for web and open source (OS) technology with open source governance. And we need to speed up the standardisation process of such open environments, giving multiple parties the chance to innovate collaboratively with their competitors, but in a clean ‘sand-boxed’ domain that minimises the commercial risk to the participants.

But there is no simple fix. The Webinos team offers some valuable insight in two key reports which present the industry landscape, and specific recommendations. The general thrust of Webinos’ vision is that we need to provide the web with ‘Application programming interfaces’ (APIs – software modules with generic functionality available for use by anybody) which can run in any environment on any platform. Webinos sees itself as a communal asset offering paths to implement these universal APIs.

‘We need to be able to share stuff socially and securely’, suggests Nick Allott of Webinos. APIs are the ‘stuff’ in this simple equation; the ability of one device to use another device’s capability (‘share’), and the need for people (‘socially’) to do this with confidence (‘securely’) in a standardised way. We also need ‘true network innovation and optimised network behaviour’, he says. We need to give consumers control over their data while at the time setting up open commercial ecosystems. And all this needs to be ubiquitous and interoperable. Mobile devices are important, stresses Mr Allott, but ‘PCs count, cars count and TVs are important too.’ It all needs to work everywhere.

And building networks

EU-funded projects are also deeply involved on the network side of the Future Internet. The SAIL project, for example, is working on what it calls ‘scalable and adaptive internet solutions’ but its chief focus is on developing technologies for the networks of the future, as well as the techniques to streamline the transition from today’s networks to future concepts that can evolve.

As an industry-led consortium of operators, vendors and research institutions, the innovative tools developed will, according to SAIL’s Thomas Edwall of Ericsson, ‘ensure broad acceptance within industry, and enhance the possibilities for standardisation of solutions fostering the networks of the future’. SAIL leverages state-of-the-art architectures and technologies in developing prototypes which it plans to test-drive in six scenarios and 21 use-cases built round three major dimensions in future networks: video, mobility and flash crowds.

As another example, the 4WARD project is developing networks and networked applications faster and easier, and has brought a fresh, ‘clean-slate’ approach to the Future Internet. Today’s lack of adequate ways to design, optimise and interoperate new networks has led to an architecture that is sub-optimal for many applications, and which cannot support further innovations. 4WARD overcomes this impasse through a set of radical architectural approaches. It aims to improve the design of inter-operable and complementary network architectures, enabling the co-existence of multiple networks on common platforms through virtualisation of networking resources, and enhancing the utility of networks by making them self-managing. These innovations should improve communication end-to-end, from fibre backbones to wireless and sensor networks.

Meanwhile, the COAST project is building a content-centric network architecture meeting the demands of the Future Internet, in particular for network-wide service level agreements. In this case, users specify which content they need and the COAST framework finds and delivers the most relevant data in a fast and user-friendly way.

The user also has pride of place in the COMET project which is working on a ‘content mediator architecture for content-aware networks’. This is important groundwork for the ever-growing quantities of user-generated content on the Internet. Finding content today usually means dedicated searches on well-known intermediaries, like online photo and video platforms or social networks. COMET is keen to unlock Internet search in readiness for the Future Internet. It will introduce a unified approach which includes a global naming scheme and tools to optimise both content source selection and distribution -mapping the content to the appropriate resources based on transmission requirements, user preferences and the network state.

What all the above Future Internet projects and initiatives illustrate is that the EU takes its commitments to the Digital Agenda very seriously. Though many of them face huge challenges, dealing with legacy systems and practices and the fast-changing Internet landscape, the size of the task only amplifies the measure of the achievement when EU-funded research delivers the goods.

‘In this economic climate, politicians are forced to make radical decisions,’ according to Zoran Stancic, Deputy Director General at the European Commission’s DG Information Society and Media. ‘But that decision should be to invest in the future.’ And what better place to start than the Future Internet, he suggested.

The proposed EUR 80 billion budget for the EU’s next research funding framework programme, Horizon 2020, already shows Europe’s commitment to research and innovation as pillars of the Europe 2020 strategy of ‘smart, sustainable and inclusive growth’. The Commission has proposed that the ICT funding under this new research programme should be increased by 46% in comparison to the current framework programme FP7. The EU’s Digital Agenda has also ensured that almost EUR 9.2 billion will be available for building up the broadband infrastructure needed fro the Future Internet through the Connecting Europe Facility (CEF).

These were some of the take-home messages offered by Mr Stancic and others at the recent Future Internet Assembly ( FIA) held in Poznan under the auspices of the Polish EU Presidency. FIA is a collaboration of EU-funded projects which recognise the need to strengthen Europe’s contribution to the Future Internet to maintain its competitiveness in the global marketplace.

As services and applications become context aware, they will also be able to deliver more localised value to users. The Future Internet may therefore have the effect of bringing services back ‘on shore’ to European and local economies.

‘We must innovate,’ Mr Barroso has said. ‘Modern industrial policy is about investing in research and innovation.’

When it comes to the Future Internet, we are already starting to see the results.

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