Tubes

Tubes

Tubes by Andrew Blum

 

A couple months ago, my work involved looking at the telecom industry. I immediately realized that I had no idea how phone/cable/tv worked. What is DSL? What is cable? How are fiber optics different? I wouldn’t say I am particularly ignorant about this topic. I really think most people have no clue what these things are beyond Verizon and AT&T commercials. So as part of my research, I started watching Youtube videos and ended up on a TED talk by Andrew Blum. His talk seemed interesting – although I don’t think I finished it. Afterwards, I looked him up and found that he had written this book, a book about the physical aspect of the internet. Naturally, I read it.

1) TeleGeography is a market research firm that makes maps of the internet, like the submarine cable map.

Market research firm. This term has taken on a new meaning for me in the past couple months. I now am very keen on finding out how research firms get their information. TeleGeography does surveys – once again highlighting how surveys are very underrated in society. If people don’t tell other people what they know, no one will know what they know.

2) The system of IP address is built on trust. In 2008, Pakistan Telecom declared that they were YouTube.

For two hours, people looking for Youtube were directed to PT. The changed address was cascaded through other internet providers, none of whom bothered to check and stop the error. I’m surprised I hadn’t heard of this accident before. It’s about as good click bait material as any.

3) Leonard Kleinrock’s ARPAnet (funded by Department of Defense) is considered the beginning of the internet.

The first message between the interface message processor at UCLA and its counterpart at the Stanford Research Institute was sent on 10/29/1969. This was the birth of the internet.

4) Al Gore’s High Performance Computing Act of 1991 is often credited for or ridiculed for “inventing the internet.”

For years after the start of ARPAnet, the internet was mostly a network of universities. Even the NSFnet which came later had a strong flavor of government and education institutions. Some argue that this act was what pushed the internet into the private sphere.

5) MAE East in Ashburn, VA is one of the earliest Internet Exchange points (IX).

Internet exchanges are places where internet providers meet. The largest are all in Europe (Frankfurt, Amsterdam, and London). The US exchanges are generally smaller because of a higher prevalence of direct peering – where one network is plugged into another network, instead of going through a centralized machine – the switching fabric.

6) In 2008, Sprint and Cogent depeered and 3.3% of global addresses were cut off from the rest of the internet.

Peering is an art form that this book claims is very human. It’s about network engineers talking to each other and agreeing to a deal. Money may or may not be involved. Sprint is a Tier 1 backbone, along with Level 3 and NTT.

7) Facebook lists its peering information at facebook.com/peering.

This is one of the most interesting things I’ve seen under the facebook domain. FB is very open about its peering policy and tells everyone where they can connect to its network. Seeing the information was also the moment when I decided to believe the information in the book – all of which could have been made up since I had zero prior knowledge.

8) Brocade’s MLX 32 router is one of the most commonly used at IXs.

I’m not sure if this is still true given the book is a few years old. And this really is just a piece of trivia. The router consists of the chassis (the skeleton physical structure), the backplane (etched paths between the router’s entrance and exit), the line cards (for deciding which path a bit should take), and the optical modules (essentially extremely fast blinking lightbulbs).

9) The Luzon earthquake of 2006 knocked 600 GB of capacity offline.

Again, surprised I had never heard of this. Because of providers’ desire to find the shortest and safest path, almost all submarine cables between Japan and rest of Asia go through the Luzon strait. This earthquake essentially cut off Taiwan, HK, China, and SE Asia from the global internet for a while.

10) According to a 2010 Greenpeace report, 2% of the world’s electricity usage can be traced to data centers.

Assuming this number is right, it must be a lot more now. Also interesting is that climate and landscape conditions are much more important in the selection of a data center location, compared to real estate cost – which apparently is a non-factor.

 

I learned a lot from this book. The birth of the internet. Internet exchanges. Peering. Submarine cables. Data centers. What is the internet? All things I had never paid attention to before. When all you need to do is ask for the wifi password, it’s easy to forget the physical infrastructure supporting it all. Another thing I will remember from this book is how many words I had to look up. I can argue that my vocabulary shrinks by the day. But I think Blum – understandably – is someone who focuses on physical things, which happen to be a weak area in my vocabulary. Sometimes I had to look up 4-5 words on a single page. This book doesn’t even try to be academic and esoteric. But, in the end, I now know what ‘chassis’ and ‘conduit’ mean.

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