Select Page Wednesday, October 30, 2002

The stupid network: Why I’m not sold…yet There may yet be a place for special packet treatment, and the silicon to do it

By Scott Mace,

You know things are bad in the Internet industry when the best-sounding idea out there is David Isenberg’s call for the return to or acceptance of his vision of the Internet as an all-IP-based “stupid network” – a network designed only to move packets from one place to another with no special treatment of special traffic.

It’s a seductive theory at this point in time. Let’s look at the evidence:

* Manufacturers and operators of “smart” networks – networks designed to treat some telecomm traffic, such as voice or video, better than other traffic – have taken an absolute drubbing financially. The Quality of Service Forum (for which I edited the last few white papers) is a distant memory. Multicast technology remains an academic curiosity, and traffic to the IP Multicast Mailing list has been fairly light of late. (This Web site hosts the list, and it is still the preeminent mailing list regarding multicast in the world.)

* Service providers have yet to roll out special-treatment packet delivery services to any large extent (a notable exception of late is anti-spam services). Instead, they’ve been turning to other techniques, such as route optimization and content delivery networks (caching plus monitoring), or simply overprovisioning their networks, providing surplus bandwidth at all but peak times. (I don’t consider services as VPNs to be special treatment. Although the packets are encrypted, they are otherwise treated just like other packets).

* Bandwidth costs continue to plunge. The fiber glut continues unabated. Predictions of the glut’s demise were predicated on Internet traffic growth estimates which themselves turned out to be false. (Listen to my interview with Andrew Odlysko for details.)

* Managing prioritized traffic in the end-to-end Internet is still too expensive and complicated, despite a surge of research and development aimed at putting the necessary software in silicon and baking it into switches and routers.

* The technology used to develop smart networking equipment is evolving too quickly and the state-of-the-art renders existing solutions obsolete overnight. This is not a solid basis upon which to invest in such equipment for a physical network which cannot be upgraded very often.

* The human engineering and management expertise needed to manage and optimize smart networks is in short supply and will remain so.

These arguments are powerful enough to sweep away most thoughts of implementing smart networking any time within the next few years. So why aren’t I buying the theory hook, line and sinker?

I won’t argue that anything listed above should compel any service provider or carrier to rush out and install smart networking gear. But conversely, I also know that carriers who have spent enormous fortunes installing such smart gear as voice switching equipment won’t rush away from that investment eagerly to embrace dumb networks.

Clearly, the pendulum will swing far in the direction of stupid networks. I expect the traditional telecom companies to continue to put up a front of championing smart networks for voice, while at the same time, inside these companies, they hollow out their infrastructure from the core, placing dumb networks with overprovisioned resources there and moving the intelligence to the edge – all very quietly.

At the edge (where, as Isenberg says, IP packets are broken apart and applications read and utilize the contents of the packets), I certainly would like to be able to prioritize my Internet traffic. If I’m involved in a critical data upload, I still want to surf the Web, but I want to be able to take away bandwidth from the Web surfing process and give to the critical process. The gear and software to do this exists today and there are many success stories in the enterprise arena, especially where a high-latency, low-bandwidth WAN is in place.

I also want route optimization and the ability to grab additional bandwidth on demand as needed, and I believe the technology for this exists too. There is an opportunity here for service providers to automate these processes and make them available in a seamless fashion to customers.

The most interesting action that Isenberg has taken in the course of his stupid network crusade was his October 21 call (with a few distinguished friends) for the FCC to allow the legacy telecommunications companies to fail. If they aren’t allowed to fail, the “hollowing out” I refer to above will take place at a much slower pace – for instance, the telcos will continue to slowly depreciate obsolete “smart network” equipment which should be written off as quickly as possible (bankruptcy would do it really quick) – and as a result the build-out of IP-based stupid networks will take years longer – years the United States may not have to stay competitive with a world where some stupid networks are being built out by governments in a fashion Al Gore could appreciate, the result being that the U.S. is now trailing Estonia in its rate of high-speed, always-on (“broadband”) Internet adoption, among other countries.

And yet, there are some questions that swinging to a stupid-network model raise, that give me just enough pause to avoid becoming another one of Isenberg’s troops. These questions include:

* What do we do about IP-based distributed denial-of-service attacks? In my interview with him this week, Isenberg admits that stupid networks are more vulnerable to DDoS attacks than smart networks are. In a world where all critical applications including telephony are collapsed onto a single pipe, some fancy redundancy will be necessary to thwart DDoS, raising the overhead costs of a stupid network. For this reason alone, it would be worth attending next week’s SERVICE NETWORKS / ISPCON conference, to hear three different views about how DDoS attacks can be pre-empted.

* How will carriers grab market share in any fashion other than speed or price? Providing “five nines” or more of service may become less compelling if all a customer has to do to insure a reliable pipe is to “buy as many nines as you want” as Isenberg puts it, by having redundant connections open to the Internet. As bandwidth becomes even more of a commodity, thanks to Moore’s law it will be less and less profitable.

* Isenberg’s solution is to treat it like other money-losing infrastructure: the highways, the airlines, the airports, Amtrak. In other words, let governments build and operate the Internet as a key national infrastructure. Isenberg touts a public/private partnership in Sweden, but the heavy hand of government is there as well. Can the United States stomach that sort of government role in this day and age? More importantly, must it? It’s one thing to build sewers and roads, but these facilities aren’t effectively made obsolete overnight by technology. Can the same be said about Internet carrier equipment? Maybe the government ends up owning only the conduit, but as wireless comes on strong, might even conduit in the ground be worth less than it is today?

* Wireless spectrum may eventually be reallocated into smaller and smaller pieces that can be shared by smart radios at the edge, but today’s regulatory reality is that spectrum remains scarce, a fact that 802.11 radio users are likely to run up to in a hurry with the exponential growth of that technology. The Open Spectrum movement might change that, but it’s got its work cut out for it.

* Firewalls exist to filter traffic far away from edge devices. Yet, in Isenberg’s perfect stupid network, a firewall exists only on the edge device itself. This to me seems as nonsensical as expecting every edge device to be able to combat a DDoS attack by itself. (Imagine if G.W. Bush’s IPv6 cell phone address ever got out.) Whether the unwanted content is spam, adult content, or malicious code, it’s evident that firewalls somewhere inside the edge of the network, which peek not just at packet headers but somewhat deeper inside the packet, serve a valuable purpose. Any stupid network which throws them out or expects to shrink them into each device is imagining a technological future beyond what I can foresee.

* I’ve often written about how smart networks and QoS are needed to carry the low-latency “killer apps” of the future – everything from videoconferencing to immersive applications ranging from telepresence to gaming to simulations – and along the way, they will break the monopoly held by legacy content distribution networks such as the TV networks. But Isenberg says the killer apps of the Internet have already arrived – email and the Web among them. Are we content to let the others struggle without special network consideration until bandwidth is virtually free? That’s a pretty poor return-on-investment for Internet2.

The answers to these questions elude many. For the past four years I’ve examined the potential of smart networks for the Internet (not just voice), to optimize a resource I considered scarce at bottlenecks. All the time, others such as George Gilder have argued, to limited effect, that bandwidth was becoming free and we will simply add more bandwidth everywhere any time we need it. The truth remains somewhere in between. By examining stupid networks more closely, I too am joining the ranks of those who believe that bandwidth may be too cheap to meter. And yet, some vast surge of silicon innovation may yield a solution which sweeps away all the concerns about the high overhead of metering bandwidth, or the lack of human skills to manage such systems. As always, the pendulums in technology swing back and forth.

Last week, my colleague David Kopf gave some advice to service providers which could be a saving grace in the short term: get your own data center facilities in order. As improbable as it may seem, Web hosting could emerge from the current downturn as the one area of business where service providers and carriers can make a buck, if they work hard, keep it simple and figure out how to maximize their use of an Internet which remains, for the time being, pretty stupid. So, the other SERVICE NETWORKS / ISPCON panel that I recommend to you would be Next-Generation Web and Application Hosting: Distinguishing Hype from Reality.

One thing is for certain: the world isn’t waiting for answers to my questions or Isenberg’s. Every day, in the proving grounds of Wall Street and world economies, technologies, businesses and even national infrastructures are being tried, tested, and many are found wanting. The important thing is to keep asking the tough questions, and not to let any one factor, least of all mere campaign-contribution-stoked politics, dictate the answers.


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