New initiative aims to maintain reliability and security of 5G networks

Later this year, in a laboratory in the Durand Building at Stanford University School of Engineering, a team of researchers will demonstrate how a tight formation of computer-controlled drones can be handled with precision even when the 5G network that controls it is under strain. cyberattack continues. The ultimate success or failure of the demo will depend on the ability of an experimental network control technology to detect hacks and defeat them in a second to protect navigation systems.

The transition to 5G will affect all devices connected to the internet, including drones. (Image credit: Adobe Stock / Andy Dean)

On site to observe this event will be officials from DARPA, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the government agency that subscribes Pronto project. The $ 30 million effort, led by Nick mckeown, professor of electrical engineering and computer science at Stanford, is largely funded and technically supported by the nonprofit Open networks foundation (ONF), with assistance from Princeton and Cornell universities. Their goal: to ensure that the wireless world, namely the 5G networks that will support the autonomous planes, trains and automobiles of the future, remains secure and reliable like the wired networks we rely on today.

It is no small task and the consequences could not be greater. The transition to 5G will affect all devices connected to the internet and, by extension, the lives of all people who depend on these networks to move safely. But, as recent intrusions into wired networks have shown, serious vulnerabilities exist.

The pending Pronto demo is designed to address this issue with a fix that McKeown and his colleagues have developed that wraps a virtually instantaneous shield around computers that can be accessed wirelessly using a technology known as Software Defined Network (SDN).

Invented by the McKeown Group over a dozen years ago, SDN is a simplified approach to traditional proprietary “black box” networking that decouples a network’s data and routing functions for faster reconfiguration and easier on the fly. Now, McKeown and his associates are applying advanced SDN techniques to secure 5G and wired networks. These techniques make networks more secure and resilient, with the goal of recovering from a cyberattack in less than a second – orders of magnitude faster than today’s networks. In particular, the group will demonstrate how such a network can support the flight of drones in tight formation – one of the most demanding applications of 5G in the presence of network and IT outages and attacks.

McKeown’s group invented SDN to solve technical and business problems that had started to crop up, first on wired networks like the early Internet, but later on cellular and wireless networks as these networks began. to proliferate.

All of this information should flow like water through pipes, but in this case, the pipes are physical wires or wireless channels. The goal of networking is simply not to fail – to keep the data flowing even in the event of a nuclear attack. To do this, computer scientists developed a technology that analyzed large volumes of information, such as text, images, music or streaming movies, into billions of smaller data droplets called “packets”. .

The network has essentially two tasks: First, the data packets must be addressed and transmitted to their intended destinations and reassembled in their original form. Second, the data must be routed through the network by means of wires or wireless channels – the pipes in this analogy. If a pipe is slowed down or clogged, the router simply chooses another pipe.

But, as data traffic exploded over the following years and more and more packets passed through these channels, router manufacturers began adding proprietary software to their once-simple routing boxes. “You had barnacles on barnacles of impenetrable code clogging routers, making it difficult for network operators to fix data interruptions when they did occur,” McKeown said.

In 2007, Martin Casado, then a Stanford graduate student and now a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, wrote a seminal paper proposing to create software-defined networks – virtual plumbing that removed proprietary code from open source programs. Suddenly, network operators could control the flow of data, remotely, from point A to point B, and relegate routers to their original job of simply reading the addresses of packets and sending them on their way.

Internet companies, chipmakers, and other network stakeholders quickly backed SDN, working together to create the necessary hardware and software – like P4 network control software – that enables cloud computing operations to take hold. manage ever-increasing data flows with seldom a hitch. Today, this paradigm faces a new hurdle: the fact that the manufacturers of these new 5G wireless networks no longer have their headquarters in America, but in China and Europe.

“For the first time in history, there is not a single US manufacturer of cell phone equipment. Meanwhile, the world is building 5G infrastructure on equipment where you have no idea what’s in the boxes, ”McKeown said. “This is the concern of DARPA. This is the government’s concern. And they should be worried.

Against this background, about two years ago, DARPA solicited research proposals that merged into the Pronto project. Stanford campus demo is proof of concept that SDN systems, adapted to run on 5G networks, can thwart hacks on drones flown by the Stanford professor of aeronautics and astronautics lab Mac Schwager, all in less than a second – much faster than the minutes or hours it would take today.

This first test will be fairly straightforward: when the IT people switch to the SDN shield, the drones should fly in a straight line during the attack. When they deactivate protection, the craft should crash to the ground or collide. “We’re going to destroy a few drones, but luckily they’re pretty tough,” said McKeown, who is to receive the IEEE Alexander Graham Bell Medal for his continued contributions to networking technology.

The second longer term objective of the Pronto project will be to demonstrate that the experimental SDN systems of each of the collaborating universities can also run 5G network testbeds. Here, university researchers work with dozens of industry players – cloud service companies, chipmakers, data security providers, and network traffic carriers – brought together through the NFB.

The NFB will translate the universities’ SDN research into wireless networking protocols that would have an important intellectual property feature – they would have no IPs at all thanks to their open source development model. Like the original Internet, open source adheres to simple rules. Anyone is free to download any open source product, and modify and improve the product as they see fit, as long as they return any changes or improvements to the open source community for further adaptation or refinement.

“I think it’s this combination of open source ethics and the deep programmability of SDN that will make future wireless networks more reliable and secure,” McKeown said.

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