Posts Tagged ‘internet’

Bad news: The IPv4 barrel is almost empty. Good news: The network will be relevant again.

December 6, 2010

“He who talks more is sooner exhausted” — Lao Tsu

Buying Internet access is a simple decision for most people in the developed world.

We take it for granted that we will be able to reach everyone, and everyone will be able to reach us, so the only things to consider are “how much bandwidth do I get?” and “how much does it cost?”.

However, if the Internet started to split into two logical networks, you would want a network provider that connected you to both parts. If you wanted to reach everybody, the quality of the Internet access, IPv4/IPv6 integration, and the quality of support you received would be key differentiating factors.

The ubiquity of everyday, humdrum Internet access has brought about fierce price wars and consolidation in the IP transit market over the last decade. Right now Internet access is a digital commodity, but the impending IPv6 shakeup will change that .

The physical Internet will be expected to accommodate a new logical layer for which few have invested. Meanwhile a new way of working is going to be imposed on people who are starting from a knowledge and operational skill level of zero.

The consequence of this disruption is that something that we have come to consider simply as a cost of doing business will once again have strategic relevance. Internet access that could previously be relied upon to be a ubiquitous commodity, will become differentiated by variation in performance, user experience and support. We will need to ask new questions: Can I reach everyone I need to? Can they reach me? What is the user experience like? Will this service even work?

With one year to go before even the RIR supply of IPs is exhausted, it is now inevitable that the Internet will fragment and develop a split brain. When the RIRs themselves run dry, and the trade in IPv4 space really gets going, prices will escalate rapidly. Eventually it stops being commercially viable to buy IPv4 address space in order to maintain network growth.

There is simply no way the entire IPv4 Internet will be running dual stack by the time we see IPv6-only users, content and services start sprouting up. It’s also inconceivable that there will be any large-scale protocol NAT that can deliver a decent user experience. So this means, regardless of how much IPv4 you have bought or hoarded, if you don’t migrate to dual stack anyway you can expect to be branded a legacy network by competitors.

As I explained previously, there will be a severe skills shortage in IPv6. Making sense of the technical transition and all the implications is exceedingly difficult; it involves taking a step back to get an objective overview of the Internet as a whole.

Disruptive effects can take various forms – market forces, technology and regulation. The beauty of this technical one is that we’ve known about it since forever. Everybody has had a chance to make sure they’ll not be left standing without a chair when the music stops.

So congratulations to those operators who have the nous to emerge as leading, capable providers in the confusing multi-protocol landscape that will emerge in the next 2-3 years. You just found your product differentiator again.

If the Internet shifts out of neutral, what might that mean for the Enterprise WAN market?

August 16, 2010

Shanghai Nights

During last week’s bombardment of Verizon/Google analysis I found myself  speculating on the possible “death” of net neutrality and the potential implications from my own perspective in the carrier industry. This was one of the questions that popped into my head:

What is the difference between:

  1. A private WAN
  2. A secure VPN on a prioritised/tiered, non-neutral Internet

Those two things could bear a striking resemblance to one another, couldn’t they?

Generally speaking, private wide area IP networks have value to business because they provide what the Internet does not – predictable, reliable performance. They deliver critical enterprise-grade performance in a world where all Internet traffic is treated as best-efforts, leaving everyone at the mercy of congestion and packet loss. If premium, prioritised Internet was on offer for the right price, leading the performance of Internet VPNs to dramatically improve, what would happen to the value proposition of the traditional IP WAN offering?

If you view the Internet in a political sense what it essentially boils down to is a collection of agreements to exchange traffic between networks. Those agreements determine routing policy; decisions on where to send traffic, based partly on efficiency but mostly on economics. It is the bread and butter of every autonomous system to apply policy to control where traffic should be sent to next. While it is technically possible to apply priorities to Internet traffic, in general this doesn’t happen. Most importantly if traffic does happen to be marked as requiring a QoS level this isn’t honoured between networks. So, whilst I concede that some engineering issues may exist, the main obstacle to QoS on the Internet is actually the absence of a common agreement to prioritise traffic marked as “premium”.

You might argue that any kind of meaningful agreement is unlikely, on the grounds that the industry will want to protect its higher-margin enterprise services. I recently stumbled across this fascinating interview with Malcolm Matson, in which he remarked that “the telco industry is probably the largest global cartel that mankind has ever known”. This is fairly accurate. However, if it becomes commonplace for anyone, not just content providers, to have the option to buy themselves out of best-effort Internet then it is feasible that we might see QoS agreements emerging between providers who don’t already play in the WAN market.

Admittedly, there are certain applications that will always demand a dedicated network with an SLA. However if the performance gap between this and “premium” Internet closed significantly, how many IT directors would still buy a global IP WAN?

IPv6, The Final Frontier: The real problem is not your network. It’s your people.

August 9, 2010

Salar de Uyuni

You must have seen the memo by now. Yes,  that’s it – we’re running out of numbers.

If you’re in the Internet connectivity business (and you’ve had your head in the sand) you’ve got a big problem. The exhaustion of IPv4 is clearly a business continuity issue, but not only for the infrastructural reasons you’re thinking of.

As I write this only 5.5% of IPv4 address space remains unallocated. The sequence of events that will occur as we approach the zero hour and beyond is now fairly well understood. We will see several stages of depletion, by the end of which vintage address space will become a highly valued commodity on the black market, possibly resulting in a Mad Max type scenario with everyone  scavenging for IPs in a post-apocalyptic wasteland.

Enter IPv6. The last logical addressing scheme we’ll ever need; the saviour of the Internet, that has been patiently sitting around for two decades, waiting for someone to show it some love.

The discussion thus far has been focused on three areas:

  1. Whether IPv6 will ever ‘take off’.  It will.  If you don’t believe this then what you’re actually saying is that the Internet will just stop growing, in which case you should start hanging out with these guys.
  2. Countdown updates, accompanied by articles on how silly everyone is for not taking action sooner.  We do of course all understand the lack of business case. “Markets trumps technology. And politics trumps markets” as Craig Labovitz said in this post .
  3. The best way to crowbar IPv6 into our IPv4 world and make it play nicely. No, translation really isn’t going to solve this. Get to used to dual-stack. If two parties who speak different languages want to converse properly, one of those parties needs to become bi-lingual.

Talking about the technical deployment, or lack thereof, is all well and good, but everyone seems to be ignoring a key issue here.  I’m talking about the changes required in another core asset, the one you can’t upgrade so easily:


The world has been using IPv4 for three decades. Those dotted decimal numbers are all the IT industry have ever known. Network engineers work on instincts developed through experience; they know how to provision IPv4 services quickly and what to look for when solving a fault. The concepts and mechanics of IPv4 are ingrained into their minds and many of these habits will not carry over to IPv6.

Do you think providers can train their entire support staff up to the IPv4-equivalent standard overnight? Of course not. The ability of these teams to function efficiently is built on real-world experience on real-world operational networks. The problem is that hardly anyone has a production IPv6 network yet. Everyone is waiting for the party to get started.

There is a big skills gap that will become apparent once ISPs start selling and supporting IPv6 services. A number of competent support engineers I know have tried reading the book we’ve all seen lying around. They didn’t get very far.  My own eyes glazed over during chapter two.  It’s a difficult, dry subject for most people to digest easily, perhaps with the exception of a few highly driven senior techies – the ones who are waiting to be given the go-ahead on IPv6 rollout.

This isn’t your everyday network upgrade. It’s not just an isolated extension of things people already understand. This is an entirely new logical overlay and it affects the whole network and all the systems on it. Imagine the effect of having all support issues on new services, however trivial, immediately escalated to the top of the support chain. I don’t think those senior engineers will be doing much else.

ISPs are rapidly approaching the day when their IPv4 networks start to become ‘legacy’. The evangelists are telling them that if they haven’t started technical deployment then it’s already too late.  Maybe it’s time we added another item  to the to-do list: “address skills gap”.

The machinery beneath

February 9, 2010

There is a scene in a popular 90s science fiction film in which Keanu Reeves wakes up, splashing around in his pod full of slime, and is faced with the immense towers of machinery that have been powering his dream world. Similarly, in present-day reality, there are unfortunate engineers – the Oompa-Loompas of the Interweb chocolate factory – who, through their work, are denied the purely ethereal online experience enjoyed by everyone else. For them, behind each Google search, each tweet and Spotify playlist is a terrible vastitude of air-conditioned warehouses filled with miles of humming, blinking machines and endless cable spaghetti.

The anti-green credentials of the Internet are partly due to good old fashioned human extravagance. Resources are poured into the fabrication of silicon and the production of over packaged machines that, once installed, appear to do little more than turn electrical energy into heat, and then require industrial-scale cooling to keep them happy. But the machines don’t make themselves and the social demand for technical infrastructure is not slowing down.

During his talk at LSE last week Jaron Lanier described the heavy industry of the Internet as “profoundly wasteful“. His point, mainly in support of a universal micropayment system, was that current usage patterns are hugely inefficient, particularly with regard to file sharing and the endless duplication this entails. The anarchic nature of the Internet, while being one of its greatest strengths, has contributed to this. Although the actual percentage of total bandwidth sucked up by peer-to-peer networks is up for debate the fact remains that a fresh approach to digital rights management and payment could help. Currently legal file distribution remains in the grip of what Lanier refers to as “walled gardens”, such as iTunes and Amazon Kindle, whereby a perennial cycle of physical gadgets must be produced in order to make money out of intangible things.

Interestingly, the worst recession since records began has failed to stifle society’s insatiable appetite for digital content and services, with Internet traffic growth continuing on a skyward trajectory. Ofcom research reveals that even in a frosty economic climate, many people would forgo other luxuries before considering cutting their spending on broadband. It seems the UK has a new essential utility. In this environment of growth, social and economic changes will accomplish more than what can be achieved with just more efficient hardware.

Chasing the ball

January 26, 2010

Since Tim Berners Lee’s invention first began to attract the world’s interest in the mid 1990s, with a rapid transformation of the public face of the Internet, everyone has been furiously pointing and clicking, and puzzling over how best to make money out of it. The Internet has always been a social phenomenon rather than a technological one. While the underlying layers of technology change imperceptibly, the applications on the surface undergo constant development, recycling and repackaging. For example, twenty years ago Twitter was called IRC and Web Forums were called Usenet. The trends of the day are followed by magpie-minded marketing, business and media folk, like a herd of school children chasing a football around the playground.

Nowadays, in the era of social media, information sharing and collaboration are the key characteristics. As Facebook achieves 350 million users, while simultaneously failing to make a profit, there is something of the old dotcom excitement in the air amongst investors. As John Naughton points out, this seems like “the triumph of hope over experience”. How frustrating it must be to have a user base larger than the population of  the U.S and yet not be able to sell them anything, because their minds have learned to filter out the window dressing of click-through advertising. Meanwhile Google, in the context of search, have bucked the trend and managed to capitalise on Howard Gossage’s classic observation: “The real fact of the matter is that nobody reads ads. People read what interests them, and sometimes it’s an ad.”

But recently some new business models for the information economy have begun to take shape. Firstly, there are new rules to be learnt by the old guard – the telecoms companies, who have up until now been doing all the heavy lifting between the content providers and their audience. The explosion of Internet video has brought with it a fundamental change in the textbook political hierarchy of the Internet. The Tier-1 cartel of telco giants are losing their edge as the likes of Youtube (Google) peer directly with the end user networks.

As the commoditisation of raw connectivity squeezes the profit margins, the challenge is to start spinning gold not from the network itself, but from the data created as a by-product of the network being used. The data on who the customers are, where they are, who they communicate with, and when they do it. Initially this idea begins to take shape as ‘value-add’ bolt-ons to existing services. Thinking bigger, the likes of  Telco2.0 suggest that telcos could act as mediators of trust between these customers.

This week Apple will unveil their new hypebeast. This will be a device where content and connectivity come as part of the package. Is this finally some good news for the newspapers? Purveyors of traditional media have of course always struggled with the idea of an Internet where the owners of the eyeballs don’t want to pay. We have come to expect free service and free delivery, explains Martin Geddes. While Google and Facebook provide us with incredible ‘free’ applications it is worth remembering that we do pay for these, just not with money. We forfeit our privacy and give them our attention instead.