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Core Principles

February 18, 2013

What is a Collaborative Network?

These days we throw around the word “network” like it has a given meaning that everyone can agree with immediately. But if you dig into the word, and survey the terrain of the network world, it becomes clear that not all networks are created equal.

Many networks today are really just proprietary applications. For example, most social networks are built within the confines of a corporate structure, membership is controlled by that structure and all the behaviors of the network are carefully scripted and governed. Ask Facebook if they would be okay with you spinning up a new instance of their application on your web host. Good luck with that!

The mother of all computer networks, the Internet, is beautiful work of collaborative engineering. Each layer of the network is designed to encourage maximum coherence and inclusion among participants. Its standards and technologies undergo a large measure of peer review by bodies such as the W3C for example, before they are adopted and promoted. The result is that everyone agrees on how the network works, and one does not have to engage the IETF in order to set up a new website, or a VPN, for example. The Internet is a collaborative network. It even resists efforts of participants to co-opt the network for centralized control.

A collaborative network is one that removes barriers to entry, facilitates communication based on standards, discourages centralized authority and promotes organic growth. If you can add a new node to the network without re-engineering and without asking permission from some central authority, and if that new node can immediately begin transacting with other nodes, and if the network exhibits behaviors that could not easily have been specifically preconceived and designed, then you have a collaborative network.

Core Principles of Collaborative Networks

Let’s look at what might be the core principles of such networks. These principles should speak to the values, or culture, of the network rather than create a set of prescriptions that must be followed. If participants on the network share these values, then the network will flourish.

Open APIs

This should be obvious. Getting on the network requires computers to interoperate. If the APIs of each network node are not open to participants, then there is no network.

Standard Data Formats

Everyone needs to talk the same language in data exchanges, and participants must actively engage in language maintenance and evolution.

No Command and Control

Network nodes function autonomously based on information available. They may share information with other nodes but cannot expect or require specific action to be carried out in response to said information sharing. “Keep me informed, but don’t tell me what to do!”

Flexible Data Model

Expect change. Build all systems with sufficient abstraction from data models. Collaboration means building off of what others have done. It means efficiently finding solutions together. Locking down aspects of the system prevents flow and signals the onset of rigor mortis.

Self-Organization

There is no central authority in a collaborative network. Participants decide with whom to connect and with whom to share information. Each participant is autonomous and equally empowered. The network provides tools to facilitate node discovery, connection and growth.

Emergent Behavior

The behavior of the network as a whole should not (and cannot) be a preconceived design, rather it should be allowed to emerge from the autonomous functioning of all its parts. Releasing the constraints of an upfront design promotes novel and unexpected behavior.

Trust

Collaboration requires it. The participants in a collaborative network are there to work together toward a common vision. Those who reveal themselves as not being benevolent toward the vision will likely find themselves cut out of information sharing relationships, and in a collaborative network lack of information flow to a node results in the death of that node. Thus, the more trusted a participant the more information available to it and the more value it can bring to the network as a whole.

Building the Network

netfoundry is designed as a progenitor of networks that embody the above principles. In such networks the participants are what they need and what they share, and the more they share the less they need. If you are interested in building this kind of a networked world, get in touch!

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