Are Stress Fractures Threatening the Internet?

Given that the Internet has become the cornerstone for businesses large and small, there is little wonder that any perceived threat to it is due cause for alarm. Now that worldwide demand for this all important resource is rocketing skyward, businesses are beginning to wonder if the Internet can withstand the g-forces.

A recent study by Nemertes Research claims that the increased demand “is pushing against the physical and logical limitations” and thereby stressing the Internet. Specifically, the study finds that Internet demand is outpacing growth in network capacity at the access layer by a wide margin, and that IP addresses are “quickly depleting.”

Other industry reports seem to support this conclusion. The current number of global broadband subscribers now stands at 400 million. This represents a 600,000% increase since 1998. Considering there are some 6.5 billion people on the planet, the Internet is far from reaching peak use. But is this truly a worry business folks should lose sleep over? Not really.

“None of this means the Internet will abruptly stop working,” said Ted Ritter, research analyst with Nemertes. “Instead, the slowdown will be in the area of innovation. Ultimately, access bandwidth limitations will hamper deployment of next-generation applications.”

Even if the Internet itself can remain unscathed in the face of a bruising increase of use, doesn’t a slowdown in innovation and access still have the potential to cripple businesses? Again, not really. As Stu Elby, VP of Network Architecture at Verizon, put it: “IP stands victorious.” Elby explains that over the last decade, enterprises have adopted IP as the primary convergence mechanism to handle all mission critical machine-to-machine (M2M) and client-server applications.

More recently, IP is being used as the primary person-to-person communications mechanism (voice and video) within the enterprise. And early on IP adopters quickly found out the Internet could not provide the level of availability or real-time performance needed to meet mission critical requirements.

To work around these deficits, Internet operators have built carrier grade IP networks either as totally independent networks from the public Internet or as a logical partitioning of some the router infrastructure used by the public net. These carrier grade IP networks do provide all of the latest performance and capabilities enterprise customers want; but at price points commensurate with the added features—typically much higher than basic Internet access prices. Enterprise IP and IP/MPLS services (e.g., IP-VPN) offered on these networks have been tremendously successful, for example.

“The alleged architectural limits of the Internet are actually more related to the access infrastructure, for example, xDSL and cable modems networks, that is expensive and time consuming to upgrade, rather than to the core Internet architecture that, on the contrary, is very scalable and relatively inexpensive to upgrade compared to the access infrastructure,” said Paolo Gambini, chief marketing officer at Tiscali International Networks (TINet), a wholesale provider of global IP/MPLS network services,.

In effect, this means that the Internet is not suffering any stress fractures, but bottlenecks are forming at the points where users connect. But even these are fixable. “The business case for further network investments is the real challenge for access and content providers alike,” said Gambini, which, of course, underscores Elby’s point on cost restrictions. So, much of the problem lies in “the last mile” at the end of which is any given business’ customers.

Ben Zhao, assistant professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, said there is a significant shift in bandwidth usage from the core to the last mile. Internet service providers (ISP) that have traditionally relied on statistical multiplexing to offer much more bandwidth than physically available, are now finding themselves overwhelmed by traffic demands from bandwidth hungry applications, including peer-to-peer (P2P), streaming video and remote PC access.