Building a Better Internet

By Edward Cone  |  Posted 2007-04-04 Email Print this article Print

Reports of the Internet's death are greatly exaggerated. But the growth of video and broadband access will require new investment, technology and thinking to keep it healthy.

Building a Better Internet

If the sky isn't falling in 2007, traffic growth and overall capacity over time remain very real issues. For the next few years, the big Internet hubs can work with existing equipment, but upgrades must come relatively soon. Foundry's Cheng says the company will have 10-gig equipment (capable of moving information at 10 gigabits per second) that will "double the capacity of today's leading systems" ready to ship in May; he expects it to be live on the Internet by the third quarter of this year. He says 100-gig solutions will be on the market "way before 2010."

Says Steenman, speaking by phone from a meeting in Florida convened to work on an upgraded Ethernet standard: "We need new technology for the demand we expect in 2009, improved switches or next-generation 100-gigabit Ethernet." He's confident the new standard will be available when it's needed, but he acknowledges there could be problems if it isn't. "We're still in the study-group phase," he says. "The process needs to go a lot faster."

But raw speed and beefed-up carrying capacity aren't the only improvements under discussion. One solution lies in an overlay of distributed servers at the edge of different ISP networks, the method pioneered by Akamai Technologies Inc. Akamai has servers in more than 3,000 locations, in 750 cities, to boost speed and reliability over the last mile. These servers contain proprietary software that maps the net to optimize the flow of content and applications. "The Internet won't have the capacity to distribute new media in a traditional way from a central location," says Akamai chief scientist and cofounder Tom Leighton. "The Internet can be made to work, to put media into the home, and the Internet itself doesn't have to change at all." Along the same lines, Cringley has written that Google's massive data-center build-out could be part of a strategy to offer peering arrangements with ISPs, making Google "a huge proxy server for the Internet."

Another possible game-changer: a smarter Internet that differentiates between packets. "We need intelligence," says Earthlink's Collins. "Differentiated traffic has never been necessary before, and there are other technologies in the wings, such as broadband over power lines, that could become cost efficient with enough consumer demand. But intelligence is one way of meeting the looming concerns." The idea is that not all packets need to travel at the same speed to deliver optimal service.

"Some packets are more valuable than others," says Dave Caputo, chief executive of network equipment-maker Sandvine Inc. "Bandwidth has three dimensions: speed; latency, or the time lag between each packet; and jitter, the predictability of the order of the packets. It doesn't take much bandwidth to have a good phone call. VoIP is not bandwidth intensive, but it is jitter- and latency-sensitive. Nobody cares about waiting an extra 200 milliseconds for e mail, but it makes a phone call or game useless; interactive applications are more time-sensitive than non-interactive ones. A game player needs less jitter, but P2P traffic can move just a little slower without bothering people."

Prioritizing applications that are latency- and jitter-sensitive "will solve a lot of problems for enterprises and Internet users in the home," says Caputo. Without that kind of network intelligence, he foresees "a tragedy of the commons for the Internet, with bully applications taking more than their fair share, and less bandwidth-intensive apps like VoIP and gaming losing out."

Such differentiation doesn't have to impinge on "network neutrality," the hot-button issue that deals with whether or not there should be differentiated prices for similar services. (See "Scare Stories," page 40.) Cerf, a vocal proponent of network neutrality, which keeps service providers from prioritizing traffic from preferred users, e.g., those who pay more for enhanced service, is fine with prioritized traffic as long as it doesn't discriminate between providers of similar services.

With proper investment and better management, adds Sandvine's Caputo, "I feel very confident the Internet will outlive us all."

Senior Writer and author of the Know It All blog

Ed Cone has worked as a contributing editor at Wired, a staff writer at Forbes, a senior writer for Ziff Davis with Baseline and Interactive Week, and as a freelancer based in Paris and then North Carolina for a wide variety of magazines and papers including the International Herald Tribune, Texas Monthly, and Playboy. He writes an opinion column in his hometown paper, the Greensboro News & Record, and publishes the semi-popular weblog. He lives in North Carolina with his wife, Lisa, two kids, and a dog.

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