This blog, of course, is mainly about atomic energy and related topics. I do not currently have a personal blog where I feel free to comment about whatever comes to mind, but I thought I would take a little detour this morning and share a comment that I posted in response to a CNET article titled Senator open to ‘Daily Show’ chat about Net ‘tubes’.
Perhaps this will not interest most regular readers, but here is a little background. Senator Stevens made a speech against a bill that has been labeled as the “net neutrality” bill by many people and interests in the “tech” community. He metaphorically described the Internet as a series of tubes that get affected by the volume of stuff that they carry. That comment has caused great mirth and been the instigator of a number of comments. There have even been audio mashups made that used the “the internet is a series of tubes” comment as the chorus in a rather humorous way.
My feeling, however, was that old Ted was not as far off base as some people have implied and that part of the problem is that techies often do not understand metaphors. Another problem is that many people who call themselves techies or geeks have never really done much formal studying of the issues that they discuss so they really do not have much of a clue about the true nature of the Internet and the complexity of traffic patterns. Here is the comment that I put onto the CNET article – I expect I will catch some grief because of its length and tone, but so be it.
I have been amused by the reactions to Senator Stevens’s comments about the Internet and the effects of ever increasing traffic and file sizes. The TWIT guys, for example, just could not stop laughing at his expense, and a mash up played on The Daily Source Code made great fun of his comments about “tubes”.
I thought that old Ted did a pretty fair job of concisely describing a complex issue about a complicated system using words that had a chance of being understood by most of the people he was talking to. Unlike most of the people who have been commenting back and forth, the man has made his living for many years by trying to fit complex thoughts into sound bites or short speeches. He is, after all, an elected official.
The Internet is a network with as much variation in traffic capacities and flow as the road network. There are portions that are the equivalent of cow paths, dirt roads, city streets full of traffic lights, parking lots with improperly designed entrances and exits, and wide open freeways in Montana or West Virginia. There are intersections, security gateways, and “mixing bowls”. The volume of traffic on each of these portions is also variable by location, time of day and major events.
Stevens might very well have had difficult with receiving email in a timely fashion – his office is, after all, probably served by a network with tightly controlled firewalls, insufficient capacity (I am a government employee and understand how poorly designed some of our networks are and how slow they are to be upgraded) and probably multiple layers of routers and switches trying to add more drops or backbone wiring.
That network could also very well be one that has been slowed by having inconsiderate users who are trying to listen to streaming audio or watch streaming video at their desks. After all, government networks have a large number of government workers on them, some of whom are a bit lazy and know little about their effects on shared infrastructure.
Google does not “pay for its bandwidth” as some techies keep insisting. It, like most current users of the Internet, pays for connections to the internet and it has probably chosen its connection locations as carefully as FedEx or UPS have chosen some of their major locations. Like the trucks operated by those companies, once Google traffic is onto the network, it goes all over the place without additional entry fees.
Unlike trucks, however, that purchase gasoline with its embedded federal road tax, the packets sent and received by Google do not pay for the distance travelled even thought they place significant demands on the “pipes” or “tubes” that take them to and from the hundreds of millions of servers that they are indexing on a regular basis.
On the Internet, the original concept was that most of the services were about equal and placed about equal demands on each other. If email went from one place to another, for example, about an equal amount went back. In order to simplify operations and billing, the large players developed “peering” arrangements. What has been happening recently, however, is that the balance is no longer there.
Services like Google, (BTW, I use AdSense on my web sites, have Google search boxes, and do personal Google searches tens to hundreds of times per day so I am definitely not anti Google), Yahoo, YouTube, and countless others place huge demands on carriers that have to support their traffic world wide. People think of Google in terms of the relatively bandwidth light search experience, but they neglect the effect of Googlebots that are regularly reading and indexing all of the sites that they make available for quick searches.
Anyway, I am not sure what the answer is to ensure that there is sufficient revenue to keep the backbone builders busily making new pathways and adding capacity, but I am pretty sure that “net neutrality” is not the answer. Having the government step in and add rules to make us all equal makes me think back to Orwell and Lenin.
BTW, I studied literature and creative writing as an undergraduate and networks as a graduate student. I sent my first Internet email in 1985 and have been pretty busy on the net as a user, webmaster, and system guy ever since.
I think Stevens is closer to being right than those idiots that think that they are ever “connected” to a web site since a basic premise of the Internet is that it is a best effort, packet switched, connectionless network. (Each of those terms happens to be a technical description used in describing the TCP/IP protocol.)