The Internet’s Big Idea

Because of current events, it strikes me that we need to review the fundamental idea that the Internet was based on, packet switching. This goes back to the dawn of time in the 1960s, before any corporations were involved, and is the pure essence of the thing. Only by understanding the basic idea can we see who’s true to it today and who isn’t.

Packet switching is not a hard notion to grasp, as it involves the spirit of cooperation, a commons, and mutual benefit. Recall that communications networks of the earlier sort allocated bandwidth strictly. On the telephone network you always got the same slice of bandwidth, neither more nor less. On some rare occasions like Mothers’ Day you couldn’t make a call right away, but for all practical purposes it was always there and always the same.

This isn’t a very efficient way to allocate bandwidth, however, because much of it goes to waste. When you’re on a call, you consume just as much bandwidth when you’re speaking as when you’re not, and a great deal of bandwidth is idle for most of the day because it’s simply a reserve for peak calling times. So the designers of the early Internet – it was called ARPANET back then – wondered what would happen if they built a network where bandwidth was a common pool that each user would draw from when he needed it, as he needed it, instead of being strictly divided in the old-fashioned way. In this scheme, during periods of low usage, each user would get tons of bandwidth so the network would appear to be really, really fast, and during periods of high demand it would partition up fairly just like the phone network, or so it seemed. So they launched this great experiment to see what had to be done to make a network that would scale up in performance under light load and scale down to fairness under heavy load. The method is called “packet switching” to differentiate it from the “circuit switching” technology in the phone network, and the ARPANET became the Internet in its second incarnation of protocols.

Packet switching is the single most important idea in the design of the Internet, even more than universal connectivity; after all, the phone network gave us the ability to reach out and annoy anyone on the planet long ago. Packet switching as a way to manage bandwidth is the Big Idea.

It always strikes me as odd that there’s so little understanding of the Big Idea at the base of the Internet’s design pyramid among our would-be Internet regulators and ISP critics. They’re always complaining about the deceptiveness of “unlimited access” rates and “all you can eat” deals that don’t guarantee any constant or minimum rate. (Duh, we tried that already.) This is an experiment in another direction, where the deal is that it’s going to be faster at some times than at other times, but overall it’s going to be much better and much cheaper than guaranteed bandwidth. And sure enough, it works: you can even make phone calls over the Internet of exceptional quality anywhere in the world for peanuts. It’s marvelous.

Well, mostly marvelous. Throughout the Internet’s history, even when it was a closed garden for the research world and long before the great unwashed were allowed on it, the “fairness” problem has proved very difficult to resolve, because each user and each application has a different appetite for bandwidth and a different demand for response time. In the early days, the interactive terminal protocol “telnet” was often stymied by the bulk data transfer protocol “ftp”, and today Skype has to work around BitTorrent.

In theory, it shouldn’t be hard fit the needs of programs that communicate small chunks of data on a tight time line around programs that move massive amounts of data with no particular time requirement around any one chunk. In theory, we should be able to design networks that do that, either by booking reservations for the call or by giving Skype priority over BitTorrent. And in fact we have a number of experimental protocols that will do just that, especially within the confines of a private network in a business, an organization, or a home. And they all depend on a prioritizing or scheduling function having a clear idea of which packets belong to which program, and of the programs being willing to settle for less than what they want for various periods of time. And that’s the way things were on the Internet before it went commercial.

In the mid-80s, we saw Congestion Collapse (“Internet meltdown”) during periods of heavy ftp usage. The quick fix that was cobbled together required TCP to voluntarily throttle-back on the amount of data it transmitted when messages weren’t delivered. This “overloaded” dropped packets, giving them two meanings: either a packet was hit by noise and corrupted, or a network queue was full and the packet was discarded because there was no more room in the line for it. Error rates were low (there was no WiFi back then) so it was fine to react as if the network was overloaded. And we could count on everybody being polite and graciously accepting slow response time until the overall load went down.

This could have been a fairly crappy solution as it didn’t distinguish application requirements between our interactive application and our bulk data application, but implementation did what design failed to do: in practice, telnet data came in much shorter packets than ftp data, so when you combine that with the fact that the packet droppers are looking for space in network queues, you obviously get more space out of dropping long packets than short ones. So voila, in one step you’ve got priority enforcement and congestion control.

And it’s all going to be fine until the next generation of protocols comes around and our assumptions once again have to be revised. I’ll go into that tomorrow.

(Updated by removing some stuff about a blog post that inspired me to write this stuff. That material now has its own post, right below.)

Try this article for a little insight into changes afoot inside the Internet.

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