Making the Internet Faster

The Long-term Challenge of Making the Internet Faster

The world is waking up to the need for consistent low latency on the Internet. Some people, like Stuart Cheshire of Apple, have tried for decades to make the technical world think about latency when they design systems and standards. Recently, efforts like the Bufferbloat and RITE (reducing Internet transport latency) projects have been working on some of the problems that increase Internet delays. We’ve also seen great initiatives like the Internet Society Workshop on Reducing Internet Latency. Now papers are being written that urge the network community to increase its efforts to realise a near-lightspeed Internet in order to release the potential that such stable low-latency communication will give the apps of the future.

I recently got a question from a journalist when interviewed about our new video explaining sources of Internet latency: when can we have near-zero delay in the Internet? I could glean from his tone that what he hoped for was something like “next year”. I could hear his disappointment over the phone when I answered that we can make good progress within the next years, but that the big changes that would give us the Internet of our dreams could take decades.

So why is the progress towards that goal so slow?

The root lies in the distributed structure of the Internet. If we could deploy a “new” Internet tomorrow, with every component under the same all-powerful control, we would have our low-latency net immediately. The technology is there and has been for a long time.

If we discount this clean-slate utopia however, the road to low-latency happiness has obstacles related to the political, economic and technical domains.

ISPs have businesses to run and customers to keep. They’re very nervous about making changes that may scare their customers away. Since providing network services is a low-margin business, very often, _any_ change proposed will meet strong resistance. Such fear will help maintain a status quo that keeps all the actors at the same level. If we can educate and encourage decision makers within such organisations, the chances of deployment will increase.

For the technical challenges, any solution that will drastically improve the situation has to be widely embraced by the community in order to succeed. Not only that, but it has to support incremental deployment. Some legacy equipment will lurk in the shadows waiting to break your beautifully designed algorithm for low latency communication. So to increase the chance of success, solutions should be standardised and designed with implicit incentives for people to adopt them, even though there may be a phase with sub-maximal benefits due to lack of widespread deployment. In the meantime, there are many ways to make smaller changes that have less impact, but that can still cut some milliseconds from Internet response times.

Raising Public Awareness

An important element for increasing the chance of success for making the Internet faster is to raise public awareness. When the benefits are known, there should be a growing pressure on the influential players to help with the low-latency efforts. My feeling is that we’re about to reach a point where Internet latency is no longer a topic only for small groups of people with a special interest. We’re witnessing a growing interest, much due to the Bufferbloat project’s work. In RITE, we have just released an informational video aiming for raising public awareness about the topic. We’ve included educational material so that it can easily be used in IT 101 courses, allowing a new generation of technicians to be conscious of the latency aspect.

I’m an optimist about this. My hope is that the raised awareness will motivate a collective effort so that we’ll reach agreement on changes that will transform the Internet –without having to wait until 2040.

~ By Andreas Petlund via the InternetSociety.org