When we open web browsers and streaming services, we expect them to work seamlessly without interruptions. Sounds basic enough, right? But have you considered how much data goes over your local network? Now imagine all the computers communicating worldwide! It took years for internet service providers to make the internet work the way it does today. Without the physical infrastructure underpinning our networks, connecting computers the way they are now would have been impossible.
In this episode, Dave Temkin, Ingrid Burrington, Jack Waters, and Andrew Blum join us to discuss how the internet works. They detail the hidden infrastructure involved in getting computers connected around the world. Contrary to what digital natives might think, your connection to the World Wide Web isn't 100% wireless. They also discuss the rise of Netflix and the need for an interconnected and open global network.
If you want to understand the massive network of physical infrastructure required to connect computers worldwide, then this episode of the Traceroute podcast is for you.
[01:15] Netflix’s Goal and Challenge
Dave Temkin: “We always knew that streaming was going to be the future. It's not a coincidence that the company was called Netflix, the intention was always to deliver it over the network. We just needed to feel that the network was ready.”
- Netflix, the global streaming service that allows uninterrupted streaming, took years to build.
- The infrastructure needed to be scalable to a point where it can serve millions of users without breaking the internet.
- The key to solving this data transmission challenge is networks.
[3:12] What is a Network?
- Networks are overlapping and interconnecting things. These can be virtually or physically tied together.
- The networks that let the internet work require the support of physical infrastructure.
- Acknowledging this fact helps us understand that the internet is a public resource. People don’t see internet infrastructures as public work.
- Network infrastructure includes data centers, towers, and all the wires, cables, and fibers that connect them.
[5:47] How the Network Market Grew
- After the government relaxed regulations in the 1990s, there was a big wave of infrastructure development.
- For example, Williams, an oil and gas company, built fiber networks using their non-operational oil and gas pipelines.
- Developers built many fiber networks beyond that time's demand. Many of these infrastructures are still in us today.
[6:58] Interconnection and Resiliency of Networks
- Most people will only think about their own network. In reality, a larger computer network of interconnected cables is the basis of how the internet works.
- Interconnectivity forms the basis of maintaining a stable internet connection. Hundreds of interconnected cables ensure that computer networks are durable and resilient.
Ingrid Burrington: “There is a resiliency built into the way that Internet networks function in that it's not just like one single cable that gets cut and everyone loses their internet access.”
[8:18] Level 3’s Legacy
- Physical linkages are necessary to make the internet work. Many people don’t think about this equipment.
- For Level 3, internet infrastructure needed to be built from scratch but still have the space for upgrades.
- The company built 16,500 miles of network in the United States and 3,500 miles in Europe in 30 months.
- Before this network was constructed, the internet ran largely on the legacy of the telephone network.
- The demand for the networks Level 3 built did not surface until the late 2000s. While they missed the timing, their legacy remains.
[14:38] How The Internet Has Changed
- The emergence of smartphones helped dramatically change the internet’s landscape. We now favor cloud, triggering the need for a hybrid cloud provider and such.
Jack Waters: “I do think it is probably one of the most important things that have ever been developed for mankind. And I think it's changed everyone's lives for the better, even though there are many downsides that we're navigating through.”
- As the industry grows, there will always be power struggles and concerns over consolidation and equal access.
- With current growth rates, infrastructure investment crucial to how the internet works should also expand to serve future demand.
[16:24] The Layers of Networks that Ensure the Internet Works
Andrew Blum: “Fundamentally, a network means that we can connect to each other across distance and we can expand those connections constantly.”
- These networks are physical building blocks required for how the internet works.
- Data centers network multiple servers where data is stored and processed. Internet exchange points connect web servers and networks physically through cables inside physical internet routers.
- There are also lines that connect multiple computers and networks to each other.
[18:51] Development and Ownership
- Although fiber optic cables are cheap, digging trenches for them is expensive. Many companies went bust because of these costs.
- But these initial infrastructure developments paved the way for how the internet works now. They also gave rise to streaming services like YouTube, Netflix, Apple iTunes.
- In the past decade, thousands of interconnected networks got replaced by the internet’s biggest companies like Facebook, Google, Amazon, Apple, and Microsoft.
- Google, Amazon, and Facebook have built their own international networks and over time have connected to create a more efficient computer network.
- Neutral exchange points are vital to allow smaller networks to exist and not rely entirely on internet giants.
[24:06] The Value of An Interconnected and Open Internet
- Otter, a transcription service, allows huge files to be transported from Dropbox instantly.
- That feat would be impossible without an interconnected and open internet.
- The companies that have done best are the ones who can keep up with our demands from the internet, such as Netflix.
- There used to be a time when you couldn't watch Netflix during a busy Saturday night due to the internet traffic, but this has now been solved.
- Even though services have become much more efficient, we should remember that these companies have replaced thousands of networks.
[26:24] Why A Decentralized Internet?
- Decentralization is crucial to allow for technical innovation, price flexibility, and competition. No one internet service provider should be the sole provider of internet access.
- To prevent crashing, Netflix needed a reliable and strong computer network. They couldn't rely on just one provider.
- When Netflix started, it depended on neutral exchange points and strong partnerships. Managing these partnerships meant keeping access open.
- Learn more about Netflix’s evolution in the full episode!
[32:00] Physical Investments Responsible for How the Internet Works
- Technology infrastructure underpins all the technological advancements that we continue and will continue to enjoy.
- For instance, the COVID vaccines took only weeks to produce because of the computer infrastructure they used to model.
Dave Temkin: “If we didn't have that infrastructure, it would be years and not measured in weeks, months or days.”
Three reasons why you should listen to this episode:
- Learn about how internet technology and infrastructure developed over the years.
- Understand the physical nature of your wireless internet connection.
- Discover why interconnected networks are crucial for technological advancements.
About Our Guests
Dave Temkin is a seasoned technology executive with experience in building and scaling world-class infrastructures and teams. He was the Vice President of Network and Systems Infrastructure at Netflix and built the world’s largest content delivery network. He is also the founder and board member of Community IX FL-IX, the largest member-run internet exchange platform. You can contact him on LinkedIn and Twitter.
Ingrid Burrington is a journalist who writes about technology, data centers, and networks. She wrote the New York: An Illustrated Field Guide To Urban Internet in 2016 and has contributed to several books and exhibition catalogs. You can learn more about her work on her website and contact her on Twitter and through email (firstname.lastname@example.org).
Jack Waters is a digital infrastructure executive with extensive experience in telecommunications, engineering for enterprise customers, and customer relations. He was the CTO of Level 3 Communications, President of the Zayo Group, and currently the Chairperson of Digital 9 Infrastructure PLC. You can contact him on LinkedIn.
Andrew Blum is a journalist and writer. He writes about technology, infrastructure, design, architecture, cities, art, and travel. In 2012, he wrote Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet, and in 2019, he wrote The Weather Machine: A Journey Inside the Forecast. You can learn more about his works on his website and email him at email@example.com.
- Tubes: A Journey To The Center Of The Internet by Andrew Blum
- Level 3 (Century Link, Lumen): LinkedIn I Website
- Networks of New York: An Illustrated Field Guide to Urban Internet Infrastructure by Ingrid Burrington
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