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Test bed helps the Internet evolve

Nick Easen for CNN

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(CNN) -- The Internet has spawned a smaller clone of itself called PlanetLab, which has been designed as the new virtual test bed for the next generation of Web-based applications.

This global virtual laboratory imitates our usage of the World Wide Web to develop new business tools, computer programs and weapons against worms and viruses.

The project sponsored by Intel Corp. and Hewlett-Packard Co., as well as many universities, is currently running on more than 160 machines at 65 sites worldwide.

"PlanetLab is a wonderful resource. Because it is in the real world, we can try things properly on a global scale," John Crowcroft of the University of Cambridge told CNN.

"We can try things that are very prototypical and go continually wrong without the worry of disturbing real users until we are ready," he adds.

The project, which sits on top of the Internet, hopes to make surfing smarter, faster and the World Wide Web more robust and spam-free.

Anyone who wants to use PlanetLab for developing code simply has to donate a computer -- known as a node -- to the network, thus increasing its capability.

A source of new applications

Some of the projects in the pipeline could be killer applications in the future commercial arena.

NetBait, which is an Intel-led project on PlanetLab models the spread of computer worms and viruses and tests out mechanisms of defense.

CoDeeN, developed at Princeton University is a piece of software that protects web servers from overload, which can cripple a Web sites' performance.

When a sudden spike in traffic or "flash crowd" is detected it is automatically intercepted and rerouted to "surrogate servers."

At present a total 70 projects are up and running around the globe.

Businesses and scientists are also using PlanetLab for computer programs that operate on many machines at once, as well as computer code that distributes content and data files around the globe for easy access wherever you might be.

Some of the technologies may be used to build super fast peer-to-peer networks and gaming products where players demand minimal, or at least equal, delay compared to their online opponents.

"If you are in the business world there are few strategies for you to simulate a roll out of your Internet based product," says Ian Pratt of the University of Cambridge told CNN.

"Most companies roll out the technology and then fix problems later," adds Pratt.

Not any more -- PlanetLab now tries to mirror our current Internet and is one of the world's biggest test beds in terms of scale and capability.

"One of the problems at present is that it is not diverse or representative enough. We need more nodes in interesting places across the globe, as well as in large corporations," says Pratt.

Before this project, institutions and companies used simulation software or other machines on the same network to develop new products, although these methods were limited.

"The interesting thing about PlanetLab from a commercial perspective is the relative ease by which new applications can be deployed," Paul Smith from Lancaster University told CNN.

Smith envisages a time when an application perfected in the simulated PlanetLab environment could be executed rapidly in the market place giving a company the competitive edge.

"It can significantly reduce development and deployment times, as well as their associated costs, enabling applications to reach their market quicker and more cheaply," says Smith.

At the moment, PlanetLab is not a massive network when compared to the Internet itself. But those who have donated nodes expect it to grow and evolve over time.

And the bigger it becomes more people will want to use it and more nodes will be donated -- and then the cycle continues.

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