Determining the Internet’s Stability

The BBC posted an interesting article Friday. In it, writer Spencer Kelly investigates the perennial claim that the Internet will eventually collapse under the weight of its own traffic.

One quote near the bottom of the article caught my eye in particular. Paul Wood, an analyst at MessageLabs, pointed out the “perception that the Internet is very resilient.” Any why shouldn’t we think it’s resilient? It was, after all, designed by the U.S. Department of Defense as a way for communications and control to survive catastrophic attacks on major military computers. The idea was that the system would find another route for data, regardless of whether major junctions were functioning or not.

But Woods goes on: “It only takes an earthquake, as we saw at the end of last year, to take out a significant segment of internet infrastructure. Then the traffic finds another route, but it goes over a very slow route, which then becomes saturated and can’t handle the bandwidth. Then you lose the traffic and that part of the world goes dark for a while.”

We’re running up against a potential problem. The Internet was originally designed to facilitate communication in the event of a major war or disaster, but we have expanded the number of ways we use that network over the years. Now, the most basic uses of the Net, the ones we think of as normal and innocent like YouTube, streaming radio, file swapping, and image-heavy Web sites, make the whole Net vulnerable. If a major disaster or intentional attack were to take out the major Internet hardware centers now, the Internet (and Web) as we know it would likely not survive.

At least until we rebuild, that is. Still, some disagree.

Should nations be thinking about improving the Internet now? Look at it this way. Many communities around the U.S. are in the process of making Internet access a public necessity, like water service and electricity, and about 29 percent of Americans believe they need the Net. If we are to rely on the Internet, we must have a reliable distributed computing network. It is time to upgrade our infrastructure to make that a reality.

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