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A Journey to the Center of the Internet – Part One

Ever wonder where your Internet comes from or where it goes when it leaves your living room?

After a squirrel took a bite out of his home internet cable, Journalist Andrew Blum decided to go on a mission to find where the internet is located. Seriously. His goal was to find the physical space that held together the various networks that make up the internet.

Blum chronicled his journey in his new book, Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. He sat down with Chris Dorobek on the DorobekINSIDER show for an extended interview.

“I went to visit the internet. The internet, of course, is not actually a cloud. It is a bunch of machines located all over the world. Some of them are in big factory like buildings, some are in the basements of office buildings. My quest was to essentially follow the wire from my home and see where it led. I wanted to see the places where the networks of the internet connected. I wanted to see where the data centers were. Where the data is actually stored and processed. Places like the undersea cables that stretch across the ocean. All of these are real physical places, that tie us all together,” said Blum.

The quest started when the internet broke at your home office, right?

“I had appreciated the idea of the internet as sort of a transcendent idea. A set of protocols that changed the world. Changed dating and shopping and revolutions and all of these things. When my internet at home broke and the cable guy blamed it on a squirrel. He said, “I think a squirrel is chewing on your internet.” I suddenly realized that if a squirrel could chew on the pieces of internet at home, there had to be other pieces of internet out there that squirrels could chew on. There had to be a physical construction, it couldn’t just be a cloud. That’s what I went in search of, these physical places and who runs them,” said Blum.

Who molded the internet?

“One of the most fascinating things about the internet today is that there is no master plan for it. Nobody said, let’s make it this way. It is an entirely emergent construction. The internet is networks piled upon networks that are essentially handmade. One network engineer deciding with another network engineer to interconnect their two networks. Because of that, sometimes the internet breaks. It is not redundant enough. But always there is this physical piece to it. It is not wireless. There is a wire somewhere along the way,” said Blum.

How revolutionary is the internet?

“The internet is sort of an everyday miracle. It is not magic by any stretch, but it is an amazing result of tens of thousands of human decisions made by the people who have built these networks and built the machines that run the networks. Thousand of processes happen every time we load a webpage. I wanted to sort of freeze time for a bit and try to look at a single place or a single connection and the people that put it there and why it is there in particular,” said Blum.

The book features a lot of geeks?

“These folks are really my hero’s. Most of the people I spoke to for the book were network engineers. They are the people who do build these networks. I sort of have stockholm syndrome, I have adopted their way of looking at the world. One of the things that was universal, with one exception, is that they are always eager to talk about what it is they build and how it works and why we should care,” said Blum.

There is a lore that the government was created by the Defense Department. Is this true?

Blum says there are three key moments in internet history:

  1. In 1969, Labor Day weekend, when the first interface message processor, the progenitor to our routers today, was switched on at the UCLA campus. A professor named Leonard Kleinrock was in charge. Kleinrock is still at UCLA now, in the same office. The interface message processor is what came before the internet.
  2. Some historians disagree about the timing a little bit. But the birth as an interconnection of networks was on New Year’s Eve 1983. When the TCP/IP protocol was adopted. Bolt, Beranek and Newman said “This is the day you have to switch over your systems.” The Energy Department’s network, military and academic networks all need to come adopt this lingua franca and develop a way of connecting all their networks into an inter-network. The network engineers who lived through that got I survived the TCP/IP transition buttons. It was from there that things took off.
  3. The third chapter is the more familiar one. The third chapter is the Al Gore chapter. It was the recognition in the early 90s that the government should get out of the business of building the internet and get everyone else to build it, to get private industry involved. What they did instead was finance the creation of the Network Access Points (NAPS). Essentially the roundabouts through which everyone else could build their information highways. That decision by the government to say we will sponsor the construction of these meeting points under the assumption that everyone else would build the fiber, was a monumental moment. It essential privatized the internet and allowed for the building boom of the mid to late 90s. We are still living off the boom in many ways today.

How does the flow of the internet work?

“I often try to avoid the following the path model. I don’t float down the river with the message, I like to stand at one point and watch things go by. Partly because the internet process is flows of information, not single bits moving along. Yes, a single page or a single email will have dozens, if not hundreds, if not thousands of back and forth little messages, but what is striking to me and the sort of space that I spent most of my time in with this, was that those connections have to be physical at some point. One network has to connect to another. If I am on Verizon at home on DSL and you are here on your Comcast cable line, at some point Verizon’s network has to touch Comcast’s network. They have to find a common ground to meet. Those are real places. There is a big refrigerator size machine with a Comcast inventory label and the same for Verizon and at some point they are physically connected. And, not just in one place, but in multiple.

Describe what these places are, what they look like? Blum said:

  • Some of these buildings are quite sleek and look like they are out of a science fiction movie. In fact, some were designed to look like they were out of a science fiction movie. They are meant to appeal to the geeks that run them.
  • Others are these ad hoc organizations that have come out and landed in some of the most surprising places. In the book, I open in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, at essentially the place where Wisconsin’s internet passes through. It was a simple process that as the fiber networks were built in the mid to late 90s, they needed an office building to pop up and say everyone else can connect to us here. Networks go to where networks are, so as a result, it is this one building in downtown Milwaukee filled with cut rate dentists and immigration lawyers and data centers.
  • What is striking is that, at the top of the mountain, the most important meeting points of networks are quite feeble. I like to say that there are about a dozen buildings in the world that are by far, in magnitude, more important than the next tier of buildings. Which is to say that often about 400 or 500 networks interconnect there. Compared to a second tier of places, a city like Toronto or Philadelphia perhaps that will have 40 or 50 networks. As opposed to a third tier a place like Milwaukee that will have four or five networks connecting in a building.
  • These dozen top tier buildings have become increasingly powerful. They have become the major centers of the internet. As a result they are at the places where bandwidth is cheapest and most abundant. That is a given.

Where is data stored?

“A data center can be anything. A data center could be the closet down the hall from your office. What I did was focus on the first ground up data centers of the number one and number two most visited websites,Google and Facebook. Both of them made the decision, about five years apart, to put their data centers in central Oregon, where the air is cool. So they can use outside air to cool their machines. Power is cheap because of all the hydro-electric power. Where there is a lot of fiber in the ground, for a bunch of different reasons. And where there are tax benefits. There is no sales tax charged on the equipment they are putting in there,” said Blum.

Blum and Dorobek’s discussion was part of FCW’s “what’s now and what’s next” series.

Part 2 of our conversation with Blum discussed underwater cables – From Lisbon to Africa – divers with cables on their shoulders (seriously).

Part 3 of our conversation with Blum discussed the disconnect between how the internet works and the policies surrounding it.

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