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How to Manage Internet Abundance

Bret Swanson

The Internet has two billion global users, and the developing world is just hitting its growth phase. Mobile data traffic is doubling every year, and soon all four billion mobile phones will access the Net. In 2008, according to a new UC-San Diego study, Americans consumed over 3,600 exabytes of information, or an average of 34 gigabytes per person per day. Microsoft researchers argue in a new book, "The Fourth Paradigm," that an "exaflood" of real-world and experimental data is changing the very nature of science itself. We need completely new strategies, they write, to "capture, curate, and analyze" these unimaginably large waves of information.

As the Internet expands, deepens, and thrives — growing in complexity and importance — managing this dynamic arena becomes an ever bigger challenge. Iran severs access to Twitter and Gmail. China dramatically restricts individual access to new domain names. The U.S. considers new Net Neutrality regulation. Global bureaucrats seek new power to allocate the Internet address space. All the while, dangerous "botnets" roam the Web's wild west. Before we grab, restrict, and possibly fragment a unified Web, however, we should stop and think. About the Internet's pace of growth. About our mostly successful existing model. And about the security and stability of this supreme global resource.

Accommodating this epochal shift will be a challenge for the world's best scientists, engineers, and business leaders. It will require individual initiative, entrepreneurial genius, and global collaboration. Rather than engaging in clever debates about how to divide up a zero-sum pie, we should be thinking about the investment inputs and innovation outputs of a rapidly growing pie.

One way we will handle this information abundance is to expand the Internet. Yes, we need ever more capacious networks and data storage facilities. But we also need to expand the logical — or virtual — space of the Internet itself. We need more Internet addresses.

Fortunately, scientists and engineers have been thinking about this for a long time. We are in the midst of a transition from an old version that has served us well . . . to the next, much larger version that should last for a very long time. As CircleID readers know, the older version, which still dominates the world's Internet infrastructure and address space, is IP Version Four. The new model is IP Version Six. The engineers who developed IPv6 gave it 340 trillion trillion trillion (3.4 x 1038) unique addresses. In the famous analogy, if today's total Internet space (IPv4) is a golf ball, the next generation Internet (IPv6) is the Sun.

IPv6 should serve us well. But it is no trivial task to manage this abundance. A new report from Arbor Networks found that a "'perfect storm' of IPv4 address exhaustion, IPv6 deployment, DNSSEC deployment, and 4-byte ASN support" presents substantial security challenges. In this fast-changing environment, carriers, data centers, and content providers will find it difficult "to operate, maintain, secure, and defend their networks."

Just as we embark on this new era, however, a number of government and non-government critics are calling for more power to allocate and manage this new address space. They complain that developing nations might not be getting a fair share of the address space, nor input into the process. They want national governments or the UN's International Telecom Union to "compete" with the existing private-sector-led administrator, ICANN.

But as far as I can tell, the complaints are mostly empty. IPv6 is so vast, there is plenty for everyone. No one that I can find has ever been denied a legitimate request for address space. ICANN has given the five Regional Internet Registries large initial IPv6 allocations, and the process is running smoothly. ISPs across the globe are getting what they need, and likewise end-users. Except — and this is the important exception that proves the point — when nations intervene, as in the recent case of China's domain crackdown.

Setting up alternative, competitive, or parallel allocation and governance mechanisms would only sow confusion and possible corruption. Complicating Internet governance just as the network explodes in complexity would be foolhardy in the extreme. Given the openness of the Net, new government or UN controls over the most basic Internet resources could only serve to reduce access to the Net; possibly harm the stability and security of this global utility; and create obvious opportunities for political favoritism and even fraud.

Consider that:

  • The Internet is spreading across nations and working its way into every business process and cultural nook.
  • We are introducing huge numbers of new multilingual country-level and generic domain names.
  • The number of network nodes and the diversity of its protocols and media streams are growing exponentially.
  • So is the proliferation of attached devices and virtual spaces.
  • Completely new Web architectures may be needed to handle the coming wave of interactive high-resolution video.
  • Cyber-security threats are more numerous and sophisticated than ever.

With so many changes happening so fast, the need for a stable core is greater than ever. If we want experimentation and growth in network infrastructure and in Web outlets, products, services, and content, we need predictability in the fundamental map of the Internet.

The current bottom-up process where global stakeholders develop consensus best-practices and plan for future needs is working well. It is a process of reason, consultation, and technical cooperation. Allowing volatile politics to destabilize this quietly effective process could undo decades of progress.

Let's not underestimate just what we've achieved. The existing private-sector-led cooperative arrangement has yielded something every bit as historic as the Industrial Revolution. Two hundred fifty years ago we unlocked the secrets of physical power and launched an unprecedented improvement in living standards across much of the globe. Today, the Information Revolution is unlocking the vaults of knowledge and removing the barriers of physical distance to extend material well-being and freedom around the globe. Why derail this fast-moving train when, on either side of the tracks, botnets and bureaucrats are ready to pounce?

By Bret Swanson, President of Entropy Economics. More blog posts from Bret Swanson can also be read here.

Related topics: Access Providers, Broadband, Cyberattack, Cybercrime, DNS, ICANN, Internet Governance, IPv6, Security

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Comments

Well said! McTim  –  Feb 17, 2010 10:57 PM PDT

Spot on Bret.

I have also written a few posts about this very topic:

http://www.circleid.com/members/1420/

rgds,

McTim

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