Peering Into the Shifting Map of the Internet

We use the Internet every day. Some of us work by virtue of the Internet—even our business lives are conducted online. And for many, especially the geeks among us who jumped on the bandwagon early, using the Internet is simply a part of life, something we might take for granted, just another utility like water and power. But really, it’s so much more than that.

As a recent article by John Markoff at the New York Times explains, the face of the Internet is changing vastly, right beneath our fingers—and unless you’re right there, taking the pulse of the information superhighway as we speak, you might not know to what degree it is shifting. One of the reasons for the change is the practice of peering, or as the article explains, “when organizations… directly connect their networks instead of paying yet another company to route data traffic. Originally, the companies that owned the backbone of the Internet shared traffic.” While peering has been done since the beginning of the Internet, it seems to be more widespread–or at least, more influential in changing the landscape of the network. The article highlights the work of a man named Tim Pozar, who specializes in this networking practice.

What does these peering practices mean, exactly? Well, for one thing, it’s becoming more and more difficult to trace information—while at the same time traffic is booming. That can lead to security issues. While traditionally the bulk of information was sent through the bigger providers, like AT&T, it’s changing. The article explains:

And some flows through so-called dark networks, private channels created to move information more cheaply and efficiently within a business or any kind of organization. For instance, Google has privately built such a network so that video and search data need not pass through so many points to get to customers.

So literally, the shape of the Internet is changing, as demonstrated by the graphics in the article. This is far from a series of tubes, but rather nodes and peering fabrics meshed with big company networks. While researchers are working overtime to try and visualize this new map, it’s growing increasingly more difficult—such an “in the moment” science is bound to be. According to the Times, Dr. Albert-László Barabási at the University of Notre Dame and his fellow researchers’ Internet mapping project has uncovered a “scale-free network” where they have determined that “connections were not random; instead a number of nodes had far more links than most.” In other words, it’s all about connectedness, and the more connections the more likely a certain network is going to be successful.

Granted, I am no Internet scientist, but this is still a fascinating look into the way it’s changing around us, especially considering how integral it’s become to our lives. What do you think about the security and connectedness of the Internet? Any web gurus want to chime in with their opinions?

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