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Peering, Virtual-Geography and the Shape of the Internet

March 11, 2010

There is an interesting discussion going on about how the flow of data moving around the internet gives it a ‘shape’ and what that shape means. You can see this discussion written up in an interesting article in the New York Times; ‘Scientists Strive to Map the Shape-Shifting Net‘. So what is mean by the ‘shape’ of the Internet? We often instinctively see shape in three-dimensional terms – which is not always helpful when thinking of the Internet – which is essentially a ‘network of networks’ running on on-top a physical network of wires, phone lines and wifi bubbles. Put simply, it has a complex shape and developing methods to map the complex virtual-physical amalgam is an ongoing area.

So how do we describe networks? The basic building blocks are as nodes and connections. However the node/connection structure still conjurers up a more geographical view of mapping – however the virtuality of the Internet means this is not the case. To envision the virtual-physical mapping take the example of the iconic London tube map; this is a topological map designed to help passengers navigate around and not a geographical map accurately reflecting the positions of the stations. There is a degree of correspondence between the geography and the topography – but both are distinct. Such is the case with mapping networks; The New York Times article quotes John C. Doyle, an electrical engineer at California Institute of Technology, who argues that, “the mathematical description of a network as a graph of lines and nodes vastly oversimplifies the reality of the Internet. The real-world Internet, they said, is not a simple scale-free model. Instead, they offered an alternate description that they described as an H.O.T. network, or Highly optimized/Organized tolerance/Trade-offs.”

In essence this concept seeks to account for the uncertainty and multi-functionality of the Internet. This means that it seeks to explain how we can map a networks that is constantly in flux as users add/remove/modify both nodes and links plus the fact that the computational devices we use are not single function items; as computers they can be used for many different things.

The movement towards cloud computing combined with the increasing use of p2p and video streaming means the topography of the internet is undergoing change. But what and how is a matter of debate. What is not in dispute the the growing volume of data;

“When we started releasing data publicly, we measured it in petabytes of traffic,” said Doug Webster, a Cisco Systems market executive who is responsible for an annual report by the firm that charts changes in the Internet. “Then a couple of years ago we had to start measuring them in zettabytes, and now we’re measuring them in what we call yottabytes.” One petabyte is equivalent to one million gigabytes. A zettabyte is a million petabytes. And a yottabyte is a thousand zettabytes.

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