Working out the Internet: it’s a volume game!

The People’s Cloud – Episode 2

Episode Description

In Episode 2 of The People’s Cloud we speak to some of the best Internet infrastructure technicians in the world and ask them to try and explain how the Internet works as concisely as possible. End result? It turns out that the Internet is pretty complicated!

“It’s a volume game. The Internet is a volume game” Örn Orrason

Once we begin to realise that the Internet is more than just a Matrix-esque world of zeros and ones, but also a set of businesses in constant negotiation over sharing network infrastructure and bandwidth, we begin to realise that there is a precarity to the increasing Internet consumption of our every-day lives. Internet users are at the mercy of current demand, load, power, capacity and human negotiation.

Credit: Sebastien Dehesdin

We talk about packets, ether, addresses, routers and the speed of light. But we also talk about how the Internet is not just one thing. It is many networks that connect together in a process called Peering. Peering is possibly one of the weirdest things I’ve come across in my investigations to the internet. There are around 50,000 identifiable networks operating across the Internet at the moment. If you access the Internet via a telecommunications provider in your country (such as BT here in the UK), you are utilising the physical BT (Openreach) network.[1] Now, say you want to speak to your friend in Amsterdam over a video conferencing app such as Skype. Your BT connection needs to interact with the network that is carrying the stream for Skype, which is owned and hosted by Microsoft. In turn then the information you request must go from there to Amsterdam, via the physical cable network (which we will go into in the next episode) and then transfer across networks to the Dutch local network that your friend is on, most likely to be KPN. So what? What’s the big deal? Well, these individual closed networks have to find a way to interact together somehow otherwise everybody will be limited to accessing data that is only available on their individual network provider’s network, which would severely limit the Internet. It’s this kind of thing that amounts to censorship issues, particularly in countries where Internet access is limited as the network relations are limited. So companies need to partake in a system whereby agreements are made between actual human individuals as to whether or not one network can share data with another. In Europe, this most regularly occurs at places called Internet Exchanges, and these are super critical nodes within media infrastructure. These are the locations where physical connections are made between one network and another network. So there is a lot of cable and a lot of very complicated computing power that is being deployed at incredibly fast speeds. What about the human negotiation bit? Well, this system of peering is pretty much a ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’ setup for big network providers to promise to share their networks with each other through these ‘neutral’ hubs of the Internet Exchange network. There are literally meetings that take place all around the world such as the European Peering Forum where company representatives meet in person to discuss and negotiate these deals. It is fair to say that Peering and Internet Exchange models are not the only way that companies come to agreements and there are examples, particularly in the US where vendors go direct to each other and operate a sharing policy with each other outside of the Internet Exchange model and connect to each other outside of the safe space of Internet Exchange hubs. Sound complicated? It is very complicated. There aren’t even that many people in the world who actually understand how this works and yet it is absolutely critical to the functioning of the Internet.

Credit: Sebastien Dehesdin

So how do these networks get setup and where are they? They date back to a history of telegraph cables, which were constructed in population dense areas, where people could be employed in large numbers to switch lines over the telephone network (switchboards). Over time these hubs have begun to remove the human requirement as the faster and less expensive digital router system has taken over (this is a fair few years back mind you). So beyond the drunken conversations at the black tie events for those involved in peering, the bigger issues are beginning to be drawn up around energy provision and ensuring that these individual networks, and the critical nodes of data centres and internet exchange points are being powered and manufactured in a sustainable way. As people power becomes less and less important, and right now, it’s fair to say that people power is not at all important for the running of this network, power in the form of electricity has absolutely taken over this. And so we have seen a rise in companies moving their data operations to Nordic countries and other cold locations where powering huge data factories and their routers become less expensive.

Credit: Sebastien Dehesdin

The next issue for providers once the energy is cheap to power the hubs within their networks, is to ensure that there is enough bandwidth available in the fibre optic cable networks that transmit the precious cargo of data. The next episode in the series is all about the subsea fibre optic cable network, the vital material connections that traverse the planet and provide an infrastructure built initially on colonial trade routes, the cold war military industrial complex, and most recently the neo-liberal multinational corporate skin of the communication technologies that have fluctuated through the internet ‘booms’. What are the biggest threats to the survival and maintenance of this critical network facility?

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[1] In March 2017, Ofcom, the independent regulator and competition authority for the UK communications industries, struck a deal with BT to formally split BT from its subsidiary company Openreach. Openreach is the operator for almost the entirety of the UK’s physical telecommunication network infrastructure. It was a bit weird that BT held control over this and also leased this network to competing companies such as Sky, Talk Talk etc. In theory, splitting Openreach will ensure that standards will be improved by Openreach as it is no longer tied to the interests of BT. An article by Matt Burgess written for Wired magazine does most of the heavy lifting in explaining this at