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Details of Grant 

EPSRC Reference: EP/R04144X/1
Title: Improving Protocol Standards for a more Trustworthy Internet
Principal Investigator: Perkins, Dr C
Other Investigators:
Researcher Co-Investigators:
Project Partners:
Department: School of Computing Science
Organisation: University of Glasgow
Scheme: Standard Research - NR1
Starts: 01 March 2018 Ends: 05 December 2020 Value (£): 232,145
EPSRC Research Topic Classifications:
Networks & Distributed Systems
EPSRC Industrial Sector Classifications:
Communications Information Technologies
Related Grants:
Panel History:  
Summary on Grant Application Form
This project will make the Internet's infrastructure and applications more

reliable and secure, more trustworthy and less vulnerable to cyber attack,

by improving the engineering processes by which the network is designed.

The Internet comprises a large number of laptops, smartphones, and other

edge devices, connecting to servers located in data centres around the

world via numerous interconnecting links and switching devices. To make

this work, all the devices must agree on how they should communicate. That

is, they must speak a common language, known as a "protocol" that describes

the format of the information that is sent and the operations to be

performed. There are many such protocols, describing the different types

of communication. For example, the HTTP protocol describes how browsers

fetch pages from websites.

To ensure interoperability between devices from different manufacturers,

these protocols are described in a series of standards documents, published

by organisations such as the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF). These

standards are developed incrementally by teams of engineers working over

several months, or perhaps years, to produce a written specification that

describes how the protocol should work. Despite the best efforts of those

developing the standards, however, the results are often found to contain

inconsistencies and ambiguities. These can lead to devices from different

manufacturers failing to work together, due to differing interpretations of

the standard, and in the worst cases can lead to vulnerabilities that open

devices up to cyber attack.

Much of the reason for these inconsistencies and ambiguities is that the

protocol standards are written in English, and hence there's no automated

way of checking them for correctness. Researchers have proposed ways of

describing protocols using methods (known as "formal languages") that are

more like computer programming languages, and that would allow automated

consistency checks to be made, but these have not been widely adopted by

the standards community.

This project will study the social, cultural, and educational barriers to

adoption of these new techniques, to understand why standards continue to

be written in English. We will explore the perceived limitations of the

alternatives, to understand why they've been adopted in certain niches,

and for certain purposes, but are not used more broadly in standards


We'll then formulate a model for the adoption of formal languages and their

supporting tools in the protocol standards community, and use it identify

areas that are ready to increase use of such techniques in their standards.

Finally, we'll use the knowledge gained to propose formal languages, that

are designed to fit the way the standards developers work, and begin the

process of introducing these into the standards process, to improve

protocol specifications and make them less vulnerable to attack.

The work will be conduced in the IETF, since it's the key international

technical standards body developing Internet protocol standards. The aim is

to improve the quality and trustworthiness of the standards that the IETF

develops, and increase security, robustness, and interoperability of the

Internet. The novel engineering research idea we will explore is that

formal languages need to be adapted to the community of interest. It is not

enough that they help solve the technical problem of how to specify a

protocol: they must do so in a way that fits the expertise and culture of

those who need to use them. Research into structured approaches and formal

languages for protocol design has not yet considered the nature of the

standards process, and hence has not seen wide uptake. We start with a deep

awareness of the standards process, consider social and technical barriers

to uptake, and propose new techniques to improve the way standards are


Key Findings
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Potential use in non-academic contexts
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Date Materialised
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Organisation Website: http://www.gla.ac.uk