A Conceptual Basis for Managing Information on the Internet

In April, 2018, Marconi Fellow and Chairman, CEO and President of the Corporation for National Research Initiatives (CNRI)Robert Kahn, delivered a speech at Purdue University focused on Digital Object Architecture.

This blog post provides a short overview of the journey to the Digital Object Architecture (DOA). Further specifics and explanation are in the actual presentation, which Purdue has kindly made available to the public.

According to Dr. Kahn, “I’ve been focused on infrastructure development for most of the time since I took a leave of absence from the faculty at MIT. The problem with working on infrastructure is that you can’t see it. So unless you have a very good idea of what it is, the ideas can roll over you and they sound good, but you don’t know what to do with them.”

For example, Kahn recalls giving talks about the Internet in the 1970’s, when it was actually being built. People would respond by saying it was a very interesting idea and then ask, “Tell me again – why would I want an IP address?” This helped Kahn understand that it is the applications that many people understand, not necessarily the infrastructure itself.

The fundamental issues of information management are unique because they involve personal and proprietary information and security. Whether users are trading options, producing digitized movies or relaying healthcare information, the proprietary nature of their information makes the web unsuitable. In addition, in many cases information must be kept for a long time, or sometimes into perpetuity.

The DOA that Kahn describes in his lecture is widely used today, but most organizations are using only pieces of it. As its benefits are more widely understood, even more businesses and universities will use it.

As with all things in Kahn’s experience, DOA is not about the technology – it is about its role as an architecture, similar to the protocols that underpin the Internet. The Internet has scaled by a factor of 10M. Given the Internet of Things and our always-connected environment, Kahn says that the Internet will scale up to a factor of a billion or a trillion, bringing it to truly unprecedented levels. This is because the architecture was never about the technology. It was about enabling the network to work.

DOA is a logical extension of the Internet and is based on the same architectural ideas. It is based on an open architecture with defined interfaces and protocols. It is independent of underlying technology. This exemplifies Kahn’s belief that the most effective developments are conceptually simple for users and applications to understand.

The DOA is very simple so that it can be used to drive interoperability between systems. It is open and non-proprietary. However, while no one is claiming IP in the architecture itself, organizations may claim IP, and charge accordingly, for implementing the architecture.

In the world of DOA, digital objects are the lingua franca. Digital objects are a sequence of bits or a set of sequences – these can be a digitized version of a movie, a chip design, an xray or anything else that you can represent in digital form. Each object has a unique, persistent identifier associated with it.

The idea of the digital object is the most well developed part of the DOA and is in widespread use today.

To learn more about DOA, tune into Kahn’s Purdue lecture here.