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The Internet isn’t Broken, but it is Bending a Little

Author: George Burns Posted In: Cloud

Amidst our new quarantined lifestyles, we have been forced to make many rapid changes in how we live and work. Our daily lives have changed significantly, and by extension, our professional lives have adapted to allow some of us to continue working.

Remote working is the new norm for many of us; it is leading employers to rethink communication, products, strategy, collaboration, finance and every other asset of business. As a result of this shift, many different articles and blogs have been published tracking the flow of internet traffic, how the backbone of the internet is holding up and some of the changes ISP and network operators have been making to adjust to this “new” flow of traffic we are generating.

Over the last several weeks, numerous articles have been published making the notion that we’re on the edge of “breaking” the internet. Let me start by saying that “breaking” the internet in the U.S. would be complicated. Really, really complicated.

The flow of internet traffic

Internet traffic flows are controlled by a series of Internet Exchanges, which route traffic to the correct networks and servers around the globe. Globally, there are currently 240 (393 total locations) Internet Exchange Points (IXPs) with 44 of those IXPs (a total of 72 locations) within the United States1. That accounts for almost 1/5 (precisely 18.3%) of the world’s global internet infrastructure, where the U.S. has only 7.2% of global Internet population2.

Breaking that down, the United States contains a disproportionate amount of the “Internet backbone,” relative to our userbase. In order to “break” the internet in the United States, we would have to overwhelm, or otherwise disable, all 72 IXP locations (and, even that would not completely “break” the internet in the U.S.). Proportionate outages of the IAX infrastructure will have a proportionate effect on the global internet, but much like COVID-19, the arc of response would be exponential, in that more outages will generate a disproportionately larger amount of internet disruption.

How it heals

But, let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. We all need to know that the internet can heal from many different types of problems, including downed IXPs. Core network protocols that make the Internet work, such as the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP), are designed to failover connections when a node is non-responsive (assuming the affected network operator has a high availability setup and has configured appropriate failover, which for most networks and organizations is a standard practice).

DNS and Denial of Service attacks have largely been handled by monitoring and blocking offenders and scaling out to handle the workload in the meantime. The concept of scaling out to manage is one of the strengths of the cloud and virtualization, which gives us the ability to reallocate resources on the fly.  Virtualization has fundamentally changed the way we buy hardware and build networks. Cloud platforms and technologies continue to allow us to take virtualization further and extend that elasticity beyond just servers, and into storage, databases, identity, and now, even deeper into infrastructure and connectivity.

Internet and the global pandemic

Understanding how this has affected the internet during this global pandemic, we need to understand how Internet traffic flows. To do that, start with the graphic below.

 

Under “normal” conditions, daily internet traffic flow follows a predictable trend: As the sun wakes up people in time zones around the globe, they start their day and start to work. During those standard working hours, the bulk of that internet traffic is handled by the illustrated “Dedicated Lanes” of the internet.

A Dedicated Lane is defined as an internet connection that connects directly to a Layer 1 or Layer 2 Internet backbone provider. Consumer-grade internet connections, or “Shared Lanes,” have several layers of routing and switching before they connect to the Internet backbone.

On Shared Lane networks, internet endpoint connection traffic is pooled, or combined, with other geographically local traffic. Or, more simply put – bandwidth is shared between neighbors. This concept of collecting traffic and funneling it to the next network layer is the foundation of all networks. But in consumer-grade shared networks, this pooling occurs a few times within a network before that traffic reaches the Internet backbone.

By contrast, Dedicated Lane networks do not have a pooling layer where traffic is combined by an ISP before being forwarded to the internet. Dedicated Lane networks connect directly to Layer 1 or Layer 2 backbone providers.

Private Traffic is Controllable

Taking it a step further, independent Dedicated Lane networks can create dedicated, private connections between other independent networks. These Layer 2 connections are created directly between networks – meaning a physical cable carries traffic between the routers for each independent network.

For example, if I own an ISP and see that a significant portion of my internet traffic is Netflix, I can work with Netflix to connect directly to their network. Then, traffic between our two networks does not need to pass through the public internet, or, as I call it, “The Wild, Wild West.”

Traffic that stays on private networks is controllable – you can define the lanes, the rules and the flows. Once traffic leaves a private network and traverses the public internet, or “Layer 3” traffic, you no longer have control over that data, at least not until it is back on a private network. Most ISPs have Layer 2 connections to many other networks, allowing them to control some traffic flows, but like any connection, these do have speed limitations.

Think about where these Dedicated Lane networks exist. These networks are (generally) not the networks that we’re connecting to from home – our home networks are almost always Shared Lane networks. During this global pandemic, with the majority of us are under stay-at-home orders, we’re doing just that. But many of us are still working; and those that aren’t working, are surfing. While we’re doing this, our Dedicated Lane networks are sitting highly underutilized, and our “Shared Networks” are being over-utilized.

So, What's Doing All the Work?

Shared Lane networks are now carrying the heft of global internet traffic. Unfortunately, they weren't designed for that. Dedicated Lane networks are (almost always) built out of Fiber, so they can carry traffic further and at faster speeds. That allows ISPs to sell these networks with Service Level Agreements (SLAs) that guarantee the networks performance metrics.

These networks are built to carry the bulk of internet traffic, and they do it in a reliable, performance-guaranteed way. Shared Lane networks also have Fiber, but that fiber can be quite a distance from a connected endpoint. Fiber is expensive, so many companies save money by deploying their “Last Mile” (or customer connection endpoint) infrastructure using a more cost-effective technology, such as Copper, Coax or Wireless. Copper, Coax and Wireless (among others) are all highly effective technologies. However, these are Class B technologies compared to Class A networks like direct connected Fiber.

Bend It Like the Internet

So, how is the internet “bending?” The weight of daily internet traffic has shifted from a globally oscillating, predictable flow between Shared and Dedicated networks, to a new reality where our Shared networks are doing so much more than we have ever asked of them in the past. Infrastructures in the background need to change to keep up. All internet traffic – regardless of the medium that it’s transferred on – traverses cables, switches, firewalls, routers and other endpoints on the path between your phone or laptop at home, or your servers and databases at work. Physical network topologies have changed and will continue to change to accommodate.

What do companies, communities, municipalities and governments need in order to best shield themselves from potential negative effects we are experiencing now, and possibly in the future? Infrastructure, security and innovation.

  • Leverage the cloud to decentralize your environment and create more reliable applications and networks
  • Leverage offerings that allow your business to put information and resources directly in the hands of those that need it
  • Leverage networks that allow you to ensure that your environment is readily accessible to your business, and that your business is readily accessible to its clients

As the saying goes, “innovate or die.” That cannot be any more relevant than the world we live and work in today.

References

  1. “Internet Exchange Points.” Data Center Map, Data Center Map, www.datacentermap.com/ixps.html.
  2.  “Key Internet Statistics to Know in 2020 (Including Mobile).” BroadbandSearch.net, www.broadbandsearch.net/blog/internet-statistics.

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