Taking the Internet to the next level

Today the Internet is sitting on an evolutionary fence. Access speeds need to increase to take Internet use to the next level, yet at the same time there has to be useful broadband content to merit the cost of increasing access speeds. But which will come first, the chicken or the egg?

There is much argument over what drives the expansion of the Internet. Is it content, access speed or price? Or some combination and permutation of the three? The story of the chicken and the egg has now added the rooster. Regardless, there is little debate that the physical structure of the Internet must evolve for it to continue to grow. The problem is that, in what has been called the “ultimate democracy,” there are no clear defined leaders or technologies. Some are adamant that wireless Internet access driven by light-weight applications will dominate future use while others says fibre transferring terabits to the home will be the ultimate outcome. Many companies are betting the farm on one while others are hedging their bets on the assumption that no one access form will dominate.

For those who surf using DSL or cable at home, the realization that this is no panacea comes rather quickly once you visit a few sites at speeds reminiscent the days of 56K. And, though theoretically DSL can move to much higher speeds, the likelihood of downloading DVD-quality movies any time soon is almost nil.

Far and away the global leader of broadband to the home, Canada still has a penetration rate of less than one in seven homes. Not exactly the kind of numbers that instil great confidence in broadband content providers.

Bill St. Arnaud, senior director of network projects with CANARIE in Ottawa, cited a study which found cost, not applications or content, to be the ultimate driver of Internet demand.

“If you can get the cost down, people will do it,” he said.

Only 12 per cent of Canadian homes have DSL because it is relatively expensive when compared to other communication technologies, he said. If the cost could be driven down to less than $20 a month then demand would increase and applications would follow, he added.

St. Arnaud said prices have not fallen due to lack of competition. He raises a valid point. One or two cable companies and a few more for DSL are pretty much all you have to choose from, and that is only the case if you live in a large urban area. For those in rural Canada it might be one, or none.

“Yeah, you can buy DSL from three or four companies but they all go to Bell and say ‘put in this DSL’ and [then] they just do the billing,” he said with a thinly veiled note of sarcasm.

Jay Pultz vice-president research director, networking, with Gartner in Stamford, Conn., agrees.

“Price is going to be a factor especially as we get those online who are more disposable-income sensitive,” he said.

“It is a normal consumer product phenomena and you have to drive the price down, like with TVs,” Pultz said.

True enough, there was a time when people thought television was just a fad.

Those who reside more on the content side of the debate include Mark Olson, principal at Solon Technologies Consulting in Calgary.

“I am not sure that is the case,” he said responding to the question whether more individuals with high speed access will help Internet growth.

“I think if you want to look at the future of the Internet and understand it…raw bandwidth is not really the issue, it is going to be finding ways to deliver content across this wide range of devices,” he said.

“The growth is not going to be with that big desktop, it is going to be…on a little tiny screen on (a) Pocket PC,” he added.

The sites that will be successful are those which deliver useful services across broad range of devices, Olson continued.

Price and content are probably the easiest problems to address. But dramatically increasing speed is a much tougher nut to crack.

speeding up the highway today

Though fibre to the home with speeds blazing into the terabit range may eventually arrive, there are many things Web sites, ISPs and businesses can do today to help speed data movement.

Even though Canada is pretty well networked, particularly in the urban areas, users are at the mercy of the weakest link on a given network. Many companies are developing content delivery networks to help reduce latency. Most of the Internet backbone is fibre and is thus almost never the cause of a bottleneck. But data has to leave the backbone to get to a company or home and here the slowdowns increase dramatically.

According to Brantz Myers, manager of content delivery networks, IP telephony and service provider marketing for Cisco Systems Canada in Toronto, better content caching, switching and routing can all help speed things up.

Caching essentially puts data as close to the end user as possible, thus making the trip to the desktop short and quick.

Myers said there are three basic places to put a caching appliance, which is a rack mounted device using specific algorithm technology to make sure Web site content is always fresh.

Companies with Web sites that generate tremendous amounts of traffic can place the cache appliance in front of the Web server so those pages commonly called up don’t need to be pulled from the slower server, Myers explained.

Large ISPs can place the appliances on their own site so their client’s commonly-accessed pages don’t have to travel across the Internet and instead only go from the ISP to the business or home.

Companies which use the Internet a lot for their own business can place a cache appliance right on the network so commonly visited Internet pages and sites only have to travel locally.

“(There is a) tremendous increase in speed and (you) reduce the amount of traffic run over the company pipe since you are not making those demands externally,” Myers explained.

Having good switching equipment helps where Web servers and databases, may get unpredictable traffic loads, such as a bank or e-commerce site.

“Content switching…allows you to optimize the load by balancing [it] across those Web servers,” he said.

Content routing technology works in tandem with cache appliances, Myers said.

“The idea of content routing is (that) you are routed to the closest, best copy of the content that has been cached somewhere,” he explained.

Another way to improve network routing is using something called a multi-protocol label, allowing one pipe to carry a large array of traffic with vastly different priority requirements.

If you download an image from the Internet and the packets arrive out of synch and with some latency, little harm is done. But if you are using a voice over IP telephone, any latency or jitter could have catastrophic side effects. Imagine speaking to your broker and the ‘not’ of ‘do not sell my stock’ getting lost in cyber-space.

To avoid this sort of SNAFU, telephony could be labelled as high priority, along with something like video conferencing, while FTP or Internet data could be labelled low priority. If the two met on the network, the Internet data would be held until the VoIP traffic had passed.

monitor all your hubs, bud

When traffic hops along the Internet, it often runs into slowdowns caused by a myriad of factors from router outages to slow servers. The larger problem is that not many ISPs and companies are properly monitoring their own traffic.

“Most ISPs don’t know exactly how their own network works all the time, they monitor major hubs or major routers, major interconnects, but when you start getting down beyond those major ones they have no monitoring, no idea how it is working,” said David Gehringer, senior product manager with Mercury Interactive Corp. in Sunnyvale, Calif.

“I have DSL and…I can tell you every Sunday when everyone else gets on I can watch the number of hops jump like clockwork,” he added.

Without properly monitoring what is going on, ISPs can not effectively nip problems in the bud.

Companies which serve up Web content should also make sure data is leaving the corporate servers as efficaciously as possible, Gehringer said.

Problems arise when application servers, databases, Web servers and the network aren’t properly tuned. Gehringer cited a case where a network, with its inherent latency, was in conflict with an application server’s desire to run in real time. The result was slow moving data.

“The stuff doesn’t play nice together (and) nobody is responsible for making sure everything works nicely,” he explained.

the holy grail

Getting fibre optic technology to the home (and every business) is really the ultimate communication and Internet panacea. The potential bandwidth is staggering, thus allowing for almost limitless movement of content. Everybody in the house could be watching a different movie while the fridge talks to the store and the thermostat talks to the weather channel.

But – and there is always a but – the cost is a formidable.

“If we were to lay down fibre in Newmarket, (Ont.), we would need some serious funding from the CRTC or someone else to do it,” said Christine Logan, senior portfolio manager Internet access and services with Sprint Canada Inc.

“In some areas it would mean and overhaul of the infrastructure that is currently there (which) is a huge expense, or it means getting things wireless,” she continued.

Wireless is an option for the last steps but even the 802.11b standard is in the megabit-a-second range, a far cry from the two terabits-a-second which can travel down a single strand of fibre optic cable today.

“I think it is going to be a little more time before we will be able to say that there is a high bandwidth Internet solution for all consumers,” she added.

But do Canadians actually spend enough money on home entertainment and communication (cable TV, videos rentals, Internet access, telephone) to offset the cost of fibre to the home?

“Is that (spending) enough to justify fibre to the home? I think the answer is probably not,” said Steve Koles, senior vice-president of marketing with GT Group Telecom Inc, in Toronto.

CANARIE’s St. Arnaud sees a solution. The government can play a role getting fibre across the country to reduce the cost of getting it into homes. Fibre can be run to schools, hospitals and libraries and set up so individual companies can have access to the fibre and then run it the short distances to homes, he said.

“Fibre can easily last 20 years and if you amortise the cost over 20 years, fibre actually turns out to be cheaper than anything,” he explained.

If price is reduced demand will increase and it will become easy for companies to justify putting in new services, he added.

So, by getting fibre to the four corners of Canada the government can help reduce the content, price, speed debate by removing the biggest stumbling block – speed.