Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Are the Internet's 'tubes' clogging up?

Former Senator Ted Stevens famously described the Internet as 'a series of tubes'. Whilst his comments were greeted with a hailstorm of derision, the analogy isn't always inappropriate: and, according to the Sunday Times, those tubes are getting clogged.

Internet users face regular “brownouts” that will freeze their computers as capacity runs out in cyberspace, according to research to be published later this year.

Experts predict that consumer demand, already growing at 60 per cent a year, will start to exceed supply from as early as next year because of more people working online and the soaring popularity of bandwidth-hungry websites such as YouTube and services such as the BBC’s iPlayer.

It will initially lead to computers being disrupted and going offline for several minutes at a time. From 2012, however, PCs and laptops are likely to operate at a much reduced speed, rendering the internet an “unreliable toy”.

. . .

In America, telecoms companies are spending £40 billion a year upgrading cables and supercomputers to increase capacity, while in Britain proposals to replace copper cabling across part of the network with fibreoptic wires would cost at least £5 billion.

Yet sites such as YouTube, the video-sharing service launched in 2005, which has exploded in popularity, can throw the most ambitious plans into disarray.

The amount of traffic generated each month by YouTube is now equivalent to the amount of traffic generated across the entire internet in all of 2000.

. . .

Analysts express such traffic in exabytes – a quintillion (or a million trillion) bytes or units of computer data. One exabyte is equivalent to 50,000 years’ worth of DVD-quality data.

Monthly traffic across the internet is running at about eight exabytes. A recent study by the University of Minnesota estimated that traffic was growing by at least 60 per cent a year, although that did not take into account plans for greater internet access in China and India.

While the net itself will ultimately survive, Ritter said that waves of disruption would begin to emerge next year, when computers would jitter and freeze. This would be followed by “brownouts” – a combination of temporary freezing and computers being reduced to a slow speed.

Ritter’s report will warn that an unreliable internet is merely a toy. “For business purposes, such as delivering medical records between hospitals in real time, it’s useless,” he said.

“Today people know how home computers slow down when the kids get back from school and start playing games, but by 2012 that traffic jam could last all day long.”

There's more at the link.

This is certainly something to watch, and not only from the perspective of number of Internet users or amount of data being transferred. It already seems clear that some of the cuts in Internet cables in the Mediterranean during recent years were not accidental, but deliberate. This had the effect of greatly slowing Internet traffic to the Middle East and South-East Asia. If terrorists can do that again, and add that burden to an already clogged Internet, it might lead to a wholesale breakdown of the 'electronic economy'. It'll definitely impact users like myself, who rely on the Internet to earn our daily bread.



Crucis said...

As a Network Design Engineer at a company who provides those internet "tubes", I would say worry not about the tubes clogging. Worry more about your favorite internet site whose systems are over-used and have no remedial growth nor backup plans in case of outages or peak usage.

It's the servers, in short, that causes the apparent delays, not the internet.

That said, attacks against the A-lever domain servers CAN halt the internet and that has happened due to cyber attacks from the far east of former Warsaw block countries.

Wayne Conrad said...

I have limitless faith in the ability of the free market system. People will fall all over themselves to make money fixing any such ills in the system.

Alas, I also have great faith in the willingness and ability of government to put their sticky fingers in the pie and keep the free market from working efficiently, usually at the behest of some part of the private sector who would rather the free market not be so free.