Is There a Value in a “Software-Defined Internet?”

How personal should a network be?  The vast majority of things I could find on the Internet, I never want to see.  The vast majority of people who could reach me, or who could reach, are those I never want to talk with.  Enterprises tell me that the great majority of the possible user-to-application or worker-to-data relationships their networks make possible are barred for security/compliance reasons.  Spam is defeating the utility of email for many, and search advertising is making finding useful stuff almost impossible.  Are we doing the right thing here?  Is there an alternative?

How flexible should a network be?  We surely have applications today that are fine with best-efforts services.  We surely have applications that demand some fairly rigorous SLA.  Can we build an efficient infrastructure to satisfy both these goals?  Is the extremely low cost of Internet bandwidth creating a kind of destructive competition for better-grade services, and preventing them from developing?

I’ve been looking over enterprise responses to questions on the Internet, email and messaging, virtual and private networks, and it’s interesting to see what the decision-makers think.  It’s also interesting that they respond differently to issues and questions, depending on whether they are talking as representatives of their business or as consumers.  The differences themselves may tell us a lot about the future.

As consumers, decision-makers are concerned about loss of privacy and what they see as the distortion created by ad sponsorship.  Every decision-maker thinks that too much of their personal information has been captured.  Do not track doesn’t work, they say.  Most cite examples that I can identify with; I do a search on a camera that I happen to own and next time I go to a news website I’ll see an ad for the camera, do-not-track notwithstanding.

As decision-makers, their big problem is bias in information.  While nearly everyone agrees that there is more information on the Internet than they’d ever have had access to before, most also believe that the information can be trusted less.  Back in 1991 when I started surveying what influenced buyers of technology, there were at least two technical publications that were in virtually everyone’s top five.  There are none there today.  People believe that online opinions, even consumer reviews, are bought and paid for.

Of course, the same people who worry as consumers about privacy are eager to exploit online advertising on behalf of their own companies, and most defend paying in some way or another for editorial mentions or analyst opinions.  They also say today that it’s smarter to spend to promote what you have than to pay to figure out, then do, the right thing in the market.

It’s obvious that you could make a sociological thesis about this topic, but that’s probably not helpful to technologists who read my blog.  Two tech questions suggest themselves; has consumerism and the Internet contaminated our whole model of communication and information dissemination to the point where it has to be fixed, and what might a fix look like?

Skype has an interesting approach to communication that might offer a starting point.  While you can set up your Skype account to permit calls or messages from anyone, you can also say that you’ll accept only contacts from someone in your contact list.  That forces others to request to join your list as a condition of communication.  LinkedIn lets people you’ve connected with send you messages but limits what others can send you.  Explicit communications, based on what is in effect an invite or closed user group, has been around for a long time.

One fair question to ask is whether systems like this should be used for email, or at least be made available.  Yes, you can block email except from a safe senders list, but how does somebody get added to that if they can’t contact you?  It’s obviously possible to do better at controlling email access, and were that done it’s possible that email would be less of a risk and an intrusion than it is now.

On the network side, there are both subtle and obvious questions.  In the latter category we have the question of whether virtual networks should be composable on a personal level.  Could I, for example, build a virtual-Internet-of-one that contains only the sites I admit?  Could I then, based on a search, find other sites and elect to admit them?

The subtle question, which also relates to virtual networking, is whether the fact that the Internet is a low-cost and ubiquitous underlayment for virtual-network services is effectively limiting the virtual-network space by creating what amounts to a polarized option set.  You can pay little and get an Internet overlay, or you can pay a whole lot to get a true private network.  In the former case you get best-efforts services, you still have DDoS issues, etc.  In the latter you can have a real SLA and more security.  Wouldn’t it be nice to have a more graduated set of options, opening more-than-best-efforts to a larger community?

There’s obviously no technical barrier to offering SLAs on the Internet, since we can do SLAs on private IP.  The problem is one of public policy, which relates to my opening question of whether our consumer vision for the Internet is impacting our overall vision of networking.  Settlement and “paid prioritization” are seen as being anti-consumer, but they’re mandatory if the Internet as a ubiquitous data dialtone is going to be meaningful.

Operators tell me that the biggest problem in profit compression is the Internet.  Internet bandwidth is low-margin to begin with, and it’s also broadly available as the foundation for virtual network services and SD-WAN.  This means that it becomes more difficult to develop an independent QoS-capable network with the Internet’s magnetic low costs.  It’s also difficult to personalize the Internet because that would, to many, smack of censorship even if the users themselves implemented the subsetting.  If we presume that the technical pathway to a true IP dialtone lies in the expansion of Internet infrastructure to be IP-dialtone infrastructure, the barriers are probably insurmountable.

Should we be allowed to “subset” the Internet both in terms of virtual subnetworking and in terms of QoS?  Should the fabric of the Internet support any valid business mission, and the application of that fabric then conform to public-policy goals?  The only way to make everything work is to make the Internet into a virtual network too, into a “software-defined Internet” or SDI.

An SD-WAN is an overlay network with virtual endpoints set as needed.  SDI would be the same thing, and the underlayment could then be either a global IP network or the MEF’s Third Network…or any combination of underlayment that offers you the scope and QoS that you want.  Since the Internet is defined by who’s on it and how it’s addressed rather than by the technology used, this would let it continue to conform for consumer-driven regulatory policy and even offer only best-efforts services.  But this approach would also let you personalize your view of the Internet, and other virtual-network services for business could coexist on the underlayment.

There has actually been a project to address this vision, started by Huawei almost a decade ago and codified by the IEEE in p1903, Next-Generation Service Overlay Network or NGSON.  The architecture for NGSON is described here, and the project is still active, though I’ve not seen much publicity on the concept.  What NGSON seeks to do, technically, is to create an overlay that can bind applications, underlayment features, and user/provider policies into a single element that can then serve as an exchange point for all of these components and stakeholders.

NGSON joins the MEF’s Third Network as a kind of generalized overlay model, and there are a half-dozen IETF proposals that introduce virtualization concepts to bind an overlay and IP underlayment, obviously to the benefit of both the IP router vendors and those with large investments in routers.  I think that in theory any of these could be used to build a SDI, but the mechanism for market adoption would be difficult.

Regulatory policy on consumer networks has shifted to a more consumeristic bias over the last five years in both the US and Europe.  The current picture would appear to put operators in a difficult position were they to adopt an overlay/underlay model that explicitly allowed for parallelism of consumer services and “the Internet”.  That’s certainly true in the US, for example.  In addition, a transformation to an SDI presents some major issues in terms of sunk costs and evolution.

I think it’s clear that the Internet isn’t going to serve all of our network needs, and that the Internet as currently structured forces unfavorable privacy trade-offs and also limits service quality.  However, transforming it directly would demand a major shift in policy, something that’s not likely to gain support in a polarized political environment.  What might have to happen is for SDN to transform networks from the bottom, and implementation of an overlay model could then evolve within that transformation.