CAREER Award Goes to Li

Li’s CAREER award will help advance his efforts to debug the Domain Name System (DNS) infrastructure, which converts user-friendly website names to IP addresses.

March 24, 2021 - Samueli School electrical engineering and computer science Assistant Professor Zhou Li has won a five-year, $527,416 Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award from the National Science Foundation’s Division of Computer and Network Systems. The CAREER award is one of NSF’s most prestigious, supporting early career faculty who have the potential to serve as academic role models and leaders in their departments or organizations.

Li’s research focuses on internet system security, specifically data-driven security analytics, internet measurement, side-channel analysis and Internet of Things (IoT) security. His CAREER funding will help advance his efforts to debug a fragmented Domain Name System (DNS) infrastructure.

DNS translates user-friendly names like to computer-friendly IP addresses. Although it has been designed as a highly reliable infrastructure, it often fails – sometimes as a result of cyber-attacks or censorship, other times because of software bugs – leading to user disruption and network outages.

“We see more than trillions of requests on a single day processed by DNS, and the volume will keep rising, given that COVID-19 keeps pushing offline activities to online,” Li said.

A recent study found 13.5% of DNS queries encountered service errors and timeouts. Li added that the DNS system, which contains numerous service providers, is open-ended and fragmented. Powerful network adversaries can interfere with its operation, and its unique settings make failures and bugs complex and difficult to diagnose. Li’s preliminary work found that 27.9% of DNS requests from one country to Google were intercepted by network adversaries.

His project seeks to develop novel platforms, techniques and tools that enable holistic debugging of the entire DNS infrastructure, both at the network layer (communication links between parties involved in DNS request and response) and software layer, as well as DNS bugs embedded in IoT devices.

He believes the project will enable effective discovery of the issues that lead to failure, as well as root-cause analysis of DNS services and clients, leading to more reliable network service for users. The project will develop a new platform that can crowd-source debugging tasks to experts all over the world, leading to collaborative and adversary-resilient debugging of the DNS infrastructure.

Li plans to make public the results of his research by releasing data, code, methods and tools through open sources to democratize DNS and network debugging in general for students, researchers, industry partners and the public. Additionally, he plans to work with industrial partners to help them debug their DNS services.

“I was thrilled to receive this award and I’m very encouraged that NSF acknowledges the value of this research,” Li said. “I feel this research is timely, given that more online activities are carried out during the pandemic, and we need to make DNS, and the whole internet, more reliable and robust to support these activities.”

The project also prioritizes research opportunities for underrepresented populations by working with UCI’s Office of Access and Inclusion to teach network analysis and debugging skills to students and teachers in the community. By adding curriculum to summer programs like ASPIRE for high schoolers, the project will give these students hands-on experience, while teachers will learn new skills through training from the OC STEM Ecosystem Institute Program, a partnership of stakeholders invested in STEM teaching and learning in Orange County.

– Anna Lynn Spitzer

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