Beki Grinter

Tubes

In computer science on September 27, 2013 at 10:27 am

I’m just finishing up Tubes. The book’s title reflects Ted Steven’s explanation of the Internet as being a series of Tubes. The author, Andrew Blum, decides to find the physical Internet. Where does it exist. The book comprises that journey, to places on the East and West Coasts of the U.S. and in Germany, where the network is visible. As he puts it:

“—the disconnection that comes as a consequence of connections, as if in a zero-sum game. And yet that isn’t the only truth about the network—especially not in Silicon Valley. Undergirding our ability to be everywhere is a more permanent thicket of connections, both social and technical. We can only talk about being connected as a state of mind, because we take the physical connection that allow it as a given.

He also attends a NANOG meeting (NANOG, North American Network Operators Group) and describes the process of network peering, the social/business relationships and process by which different Internetworks are physically connected together to create more Internetwork paths.

Prior to Tubes, I’d read Underground, Overground a history of the London Underground and its curious construction. I was struck by some of the parallels, how decisions about physical entities have reach far beyond their physical form. How the physicality of even the Underground disappears when it works (the book taught me to look a lot more closely at things in various stations, to see pieces of the infrastructure previously hidden to me, and reminded me of how I have a map of London that is partially shaped by the Tube, there are places I can only navigate without a map below ground, through the Tube, that I can not map to the surface).

Which is of course the way I experience the Internet. I largely do not see it. Indeed, the only pictures of the Internet in the U.S. that I can recall are the historical ones that show the first few nodes and its initial development e.g. here. In Tubes, Blum says that there are more contemporary “maps” available for sale at $5.5K!

But I can think of one place where the Internet has a more physically mapped presence, on the African continent. I see, for one reason or another, these images of the connections coming onshore in various African nations every other month, and this book makes me wonder why I see it more. Perhaps it’s because the infrastructure is not as dense and is therefore easier to map. Perhaps its because making the map is an argument for continuing to develop the infrastructure out and is therefore worth mapping. I don’t know. I did now think about how this map says nothing about a within-continent set of networked connections. It’s just the ones at the edge and that come from other continents. I wonder what that tells me, and what the invisibility of the rest hides.

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  1. Another source of information is RFC 2650, which gives examples of how the RPSL (Routing Policy Specification Language) is used to express peering policies. There are tools that translate the policies into router configurations, which are then distributed to routers such as the ones you would find in the datacenters described in Tubes.

    http://tools.ietf.org/html/rfc2650

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