A dumb network is marked by using intelligent devices (i.e., PCs) at the periphery that make use of a network that does not interfere with an application’s operation. The dumb network concept is the natural outcome of the end to end principle. The Internet was originally designed to operate as a dumb network.
In some circles the dumb network is regarded as a natural culmination of technological progress in network technology. With the justification that the dumb network uniquely satisfies the requirements of the end to end principle for application creation, supporters see the dumb network as uniquely qualified for this purpose. In reality the dumb network is only one position in a continuum of network design. Its attributes are suitable for the creation of certain types of network applications but are considered deleterious for others.
A dumb network, by design, is not sensitive to the needs of applications. The dumb network model can, in some ways, allow for flexibility and ease of innovation in the development of applications that is not matched by other models.
Critics of dumb network architecture posit two arguments in favor of "intelligent" networks. The first, that certain users and transmission needs of certain applications are more important than others and thus should be granted greater network priority. An example is that of real time video applications that are more time sensitive than say, text applications. Thus video transmissions would receive network priority to prevent picture skips, while text transmissions could be delayed with few if any problems affecting its application performance. The second is that networks should be able to defend against attacks by malware and other bad actors.
Advocates of dumb networks counter the first argument by pointing out that prioritizing network traffic is very expensive, both in monetary and network performance terms; also, advocates consider this a bandwidth problem and not a network protocol issue. The security argument is that malware is an end-to-end problem and thus should be dealt with at the endpoints, and that attempting to adapt the network to counter attacks is both cumbersome and inefficient.
The dumb network (and the end to end principle) was conceived of as an antithesis to the idea of a centralized intelligent computer network in which all applications were under central network control. A synthesis is taking place in the concept application aware networks or as they are sometimes called context aware networks. These networks allow intelligent devices to set up end to end applications as in the dumb network. However they are aware of application needs and in the social and enterprise context in which the applications are being used. Thus the network can make decisions on resource allocation conflicts in light of the collective needs of all users and the purposes (social and enterprise) that guide them.
"In a world of dumb terminals and telephones, networks had to be smart. But in a world of smart terminals, networks have to be dumb." George Gilder, in The Coming of the Fibersphere, Forbes ASAP, December 7, 1992).