From: Norm Jacknis (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Date: Mon Jan 14 2002 - 21:50:07 EST
I don't know how many of you saw this, but it does provide some interesting
information about the Internet. (It is long, though.)
The Internet's Invisible Hand
January 10, 2002
By KATIE HAFNER
No one owns it. And no one in particular actually runs it.
Yet more than half a billion people rely on it as they do a
The Internet is a network whose many incarnations - as
obscure academic playpen, information superhighway, vast
marketplace, sci- fi-inspired matrix - have seen it through
more than three decades of ceaseless evolution.
In the mid-1990's, a handful of doomsayers predicted that
the Internet would melt down under the strain of increased
volume. They proved to be false prophets, yet now, as it
enters its 33rd year, the Net faces other challenges.
The demands and dangers - sudden, news- driven traffic,
security holes, and a clamor for high-speed access to homes
- are concerns that bear no resemblance to those that
preoccupied the Internet's creators. For all their genius,
they failed to see what the Net would become once it left
the confines of the university and entered the free market.
Those perils are inextricably linked to what experts
consider the Internet's big promise: evolving into an
information utility as ubiquitous and accessible as
electricity. That, too, was not foreseen by most of the
engineers and computer scientists who built the Net in the
1960's and 70's.
Ten years ago, at the end of 1991, the same year that the
World Wide Web was put in place but a good two or three
years before the term Web browser became part of everyday
speech, the Net was home to some 727,000 hosts, or
computers with unique Internet Protocol, or I.P.,
addresses. By the end of 2001, that number had soared to
175 million, according to estimates by Matrix Net Systems,
a network measurement business in Austin, Tex.
For all that growth, the Net operates with surprisingly few
hiccups, 24 hours a day - and with few visible signs of who
is responsible for keeping it that way. There are no vans
with Internet Inc. logos at the roadside, no workers in
Cyberspace hard hats hovering over manholes.
Such is yet another of the Internet's glorious mysteries.
No one really owns the Net, which, as most people know by
now, is actually a sprawling collection of networks owned
by various telecommunications carriers. The largest, known
as backbone providers, include WorldCom (news/quote),
Verizon, Sprint and Cable & Wireless (news/quote) USA.
What, then, is the future of this vital public utility? Who
determines it? And who is charged with carrying it out?
For the Internet's first 25 years, the United States
government ran parts of it, financed network research and
in some cases paid companies to build custom equipment to
run the network. But in the mid-1990's the Net became a
commercial enterprise, and its operation was transferred to
private carriers. In the process, most of the government's
Now the network depends on the cooperation and mutual
interests of the telecommunications companies. Those
so-called backbone providers adhere to what are known as
peering arrangements, which are essentially agreements to
exchange traffic at no charge.
"Peering fits right in with the overly loose way the
Internet is provided," said Scott Bradner, a senior
technical consultant at Harvard University, "which is
unrelated commercial interests doing their own thing." Mr.
Bradner, co-director of the Internet Engineering Task
Force, an international self-organized group of network
designers, operators and researchers who have set technical
standards for the Internet since the late 1980's, said that
peering remains a remarkably robust mechanism.
And for now, capacity is not a particularly pressing
problem because the backbone providers have been laying
high-speed lines at prodigious rates over the last few
"We've got a lot of long-distance fiber in the ground, a
lot of which isn't being used, but it's available," said
Craig Partridge, a chief scientist at BBN Technologies, an
engineering company that oversaw the building of the first
network switches in the late 1960's and is now owned by
Still, the fear that the Net is not up to its unforeseen
role still gnaws at prognosticators. Consider the gigalapse
In December 1995, Robert Metcalfe, who invented the office
network technology known as Ethernet, wrote in his column
in the industry weekly Infoworld that the Internet was in
danger of a vast meltdown.
More specifically, Dr. Metcalfe predicted what he called a
gigalapse, or one billion lost user hours resulting from a
severed link - for instance, a ruptured connection between
a service provider and the rest of the Internet, a
backhoe's cutting a cable by mistake or the failure of a
The disaster would come by the end of 1996, he said, or he
would eat his words.
The gigalapse did not occur, and while delivering the
keynote address at an industry conference in 1997, Dr.
Metcalfe literally ate his column. "I reached under the
podium and pulled out a blender, poured a glass of water,
and blended it with the column, poured it into a bowl and
ate it with a spoon," he recalled recently.
The failure of Dr. Metcalfe's prediction apparently stemmed
from the success of the Net's basic architecture. It was
designed as a distributed network rather than a centralized
one, with data taking any number of different paths to its
That deceptively simple principle has, time and again,
saved the network from failure. When a communications line
important to the network's operation goes down, as one did
last summer when a freight-train fire in Baltimore damaged
a fiber-optic loop, data works its way around the trouble.
It took a far greater crisis to make the Internet's
On Sept. 11, within minutes of the terrorist attacks on the
World Trade Center, the question was not whether the
Internet could handle the sudden wave of traffic, but
whether the servers - the computers that deliver content to
anyone who requests it by clicking on a Web link - were up
to the task.
Executives at CNN.com were among the first to notice the
Internet's true Achilles' heel: the communications link to
individual sites that become deluged with traffic. CNN.com
fixed the problem within a few hours by adding server
capacity and moving some of its content to servers operated
by Akamai, a company providing distributed network service.
Mr. Bradner said that most large companies have active
mirror sites to allow quick downloading of the information
on their servers. And as with so many things about the Net,
responsibility lies with the service provider. "Whether
it's CNN.com or nytimes.com or anyone offering services,
they have to design their service to be reliable," he said.
"This can never be centralized."
Guidelines can help. Mr. Bradner belongs to a Federal
Communications Commission advisory group called the Network
Reliability and Operability Council, which just published a
set of recommended practices for service providers,
including advice on redundant servers, backup generators
and reliable power. "Still, there are no requirements," Mr.
If the government is not running things, exactly, at least
it is taking a close look.
Dr. Partridge of BBN Technologies recently served on a
National Research Council committee that published a report
on the Internet. One of the group's main concerns was
supplying households with high-speed Internet service,
known as broadband.
Some 10.7 million of the nation's households now have such
access, or about 16 percent of all households online,
according to the Yankee Group, a research firm.
Only when full high-speed access is established nationwide,
Mr. Partridge and others say, will the Internet and its
multimedia component, the Web, enter the next phase of
"We need to make it a normal thing that everyone has
high-speed bandwidth," said Brian Carpenter, an engineer at
I.B.M. (news/quote) and chairman of the Internet Society, a
nonprofit group that coordinates Internet-related projects
around the world.
Yet there is no central coordination of broadband
deployment. Where, when and how much access is available is
up to the individual provider - typically, the phone or
cable company. As a result, availability varies widely.
Control falls to the marketplace. And in light of recent
bankruptcies and mergers among providers, like
Excite@Home's failure and AT&T (news/quote) Broadband's
sale to Comcast (news/quote) late last year, universal
broadband deployment may be moving further into the future.
The one prominent element of centralized management in
Internet operations - the assignment of addresses and top
domain names, like .com or .edu - reflects the tricky
politics of what is essentially a libertarian arena. That
is the task of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names
and Numbers, or Icann, which operates under the auspices of
the Commerce Department. Its efforts to establish an open
decision-making process became mired in disputes over who
the Internet's stakeholders actually were.
And even as Icann and its authorized registrars take over
administration of the Internet's naming system, a different
problem nags at computer scientists: the finite number of
underlying I.P. addresses.
In the current version of Internet Protocol, the software
for the routers that direct Internet traffic, there is a
theoretical limit of four billion addresses. Some 25
percent are already spoken for.
The solution, Mr. Carpenter said, is bigger addresses.
"This means rolling out a whole new version of I.P.," he
Although the assignment of I.P. addresses falls to Icann,
inventing a new protocol is essentially a research problem
that falls to the Internet Engineering Task Force.
As the Internet continues to grow and sprawl, security is
also a nagging concern. The Internet was not built to be
secure in the first place: its openness is its core
strength and its most conspicuous weakness.
"Security is hard - not only for the designers, to make
sure a system is secure, but for users, because it gets in
the way of making things easy," Mr. Bradner said.
There is no centralized or even far-flung security
management for the Internet. The Computer Emergency
Response Team at Carnegie Mellon University is mainly a
voluntary clearinghouse for information about security
problems in Internet software.
The lack of a central security mechanism "is a mixed bag,"
Mr. Bradner said. A centralized system that could
authenticate the origin of all traffic would be useful in
tracing the source of an attack, he said.
That is where a delicate balance must be struck: between
the ability to trace traffic and the desire to protect an
individual's privacy or a corporation's data. "It's not at
all clear that there's a centralizable role, or that
there's a role government could play without posing a
severe threat to individuals," Mr. Bradner said.
Past plans for identity verification have failed because of
the complexity of making them work on a global scale, he
Such are the challenges that face the Internet as it
continues its march.
"The really interesting question to ask is whether we can
build a next generation of applications," Mr. Carpenter
said. "Can we move from what we have now, which is an
information source, to a network that's really an
information utility, used for entertainment, education and
commercial activities? There's tremendous potential here,
but we've got a lot of work to do."
As that work progresses, another question centers on what
role the government should play. Many carriers who bear the
cost of expanding the infrastructure favor federal
incentives for carriers to invest in new broadband
technology. The Federal Communications Commission is also
mulling policy changes, soliciting suggestions from the
communications industry for making broadband access more
Dr. Metcalfe predicts that the next big step is what he
calls the video Internet. "We're done with just voice and
text," he said. "No one is quite sure what the killer app
will be, but we want to see stuff move, and we want it to
be better than television."
Despite his joke about eating his words, Dr. Metcalfe said
he was unrepentant about his forecast of a gigalapse.
"There's a gigalapse in our future," he said. "The Net's
getting bigger all the time and there are basic
fragilities." Since there is no formal tracking mechanism
for connection failures, he argues, his gigalapse may very
well have happened already without anyone noticing.
"I'm sure there are outages every day, but because of the
Internet's robust nature they are generally not noticed,"
he said. "We do control-alt-delete and chant, and
eventually the connection comes back."
Indeed it does.
Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company
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