We Need a Bridge, Not a Better Boat

Ok, I admit I have a cynical bend to my mindset.  John Gallant, bigwig at Network World at the time, called me “curmudgeonly”—and that was back in 1999!  But anyway, when I read an article these days I assume there’s something in it that’s going to set me off.  Today, it’s a piece in LR about a new core router startup.  Can it, the piece asks, avoid the “curse of core routing?”  Well, that depends on whether we understand what the curse is.

Any study that’s ever been done on network economics has pointed out the price per bit for bandwidth is lower the deeper you go into the network.  One I recall from about a decade ago was showing that the price per bit of SMS was about a million times what it was for the Internet core.  So we can start our exploration of the curse by speculating that any time you’re trying to provide a product for a spot where the price per bit is in the toilet, you’re going to see a lot of brown in your future.  Core routing startups probably fail first and foremost because you can’t make money in a space where operators can’t make a profit.

And it gets worse.  We live, says a company spokesperson, in a petabit age.  Well, yes, but not all in one place.  The successor financial truth to my first point here is that all of the valuable services we’ve defined to supplement pure bit-pushing are serving mass markets.  Content is a big revenue generator because it has a big audience.  The cloud will be a big success to the extent it can produce the same thing.  Mass audiences are massive because they’re pervasive.  If we have a bunch of people who want to stream video, we have a bunch in the major metro areas.  Most of that streaming will focus on a couple of hundred titles.  That means that we can host content directly in servers or through CDNs in every metro area and serve most of the video.  Which means that the content traffic, petabits or not, never gets out of the metro.  It will be the same for the cloud.

So maybe you’re bored with the financial spin here (you shouldn’t be; we are what we spend, network-wise).  Let’s look at a technical point, in a bit of a whimsical form.  If we find people congregating more and more at the ferry landing, we can think of designing a ferry with bigger decks, more decks, higher speed…or if we can see the far shore a couple of hundred yards away, we can just think about building a bridge.

We don’t need a revolutionary router, we need a revolution in routing.  Routing has inherited a conceptual model of open connectivity that isn’t viable in the current world where nearly everything we want comes from a couple dozen sources.  In fact, an increased chunk of our network dollars are being spent building firewalls against the connections we’ve allowed by default at the network level.  Routing also presumes a hierarchical structure, an aggregation toward the core, and that’s valid where traffic is evenly distributed among a bunch of connecting peers.  Is it true for the Internet even today?  I submit that operator pressure on OTN is already demonstrating that they don’t see the future as bigger, faster, routers but as networks that connect without a traditional core at all.  Even SDN is aimed in part at creating that sort of future; it’s what Google has demonstrated in its own SDN work.

The network of the past was a connection network designed to transport what endpoints generate.  The network of the future is an experience delivery network, designed to gratify the masses with what they want when they want it.  The simple dynamics of content production and data center economies of scale demand that real opportunities be realized locally to the populous user communities—metro.  We don’t have movies talking to each other, and even in the cloud where some interprocess communication can be expected, we’re not likely to have enough processes to create a huge connectivity issue in the metro.  Users connect to point of service.  We need to be thinking about how to build this kind of network, because this is the network that operators are moving toward, following (you guessed it!) the money.  It doesn’t mean we won’t be able to watch stupid pet tricks (they’ll be cached in every metro by Google, who caches YouTube already) or that we won’t be able to send emails or IMs (each of us connects to a server, which connects to other servers, so we’re not in direct user-to-user connections anyway).  But even things like personal video are going to be shaped by the reality that we’re happy to use it to the extent it doesn’t cost us much.  If it doesn’t cost much, operators won’t spend to sustain it.

Every network product, every standard, every initiative or industry group, will stand or fall ultimately on the question of utility.  Does this concept offer enough value to someone, on a large enough scale, to produce a return on the network investment it suggests?  If the answer is “No”, then it’s not going to amount to anything other than music for the media/analyst dances.  If we want to be entertained, let’s not do it in technology publications.  Let’s just watch a stupid pet trick video.

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