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Internet Evolution

Question 1: Internet and Innovation

Large Internet content providers are concerned about the availability and performance of the services they provide to their customers, which is one of the reasons for the trend underlying this question. This ‘flattening’ of the Internet topology is a classic example of the disintermediation that has been a feature of so much of the impact of the Internet on communications and commerce. Could this also signal the creation of a hardcore of massive scale, highly resilient, high-performance content ‘channels’? Is this a step on the road to Internet as television as the infrastructural changes required to support massive online content providers become ‘baked in’?

One explanation for the changes we see happening is that innovation is naturally more difficult as complex systems mature. It’s hard to think of a man-made system more complex than the Internet. Innovation has to move to new layers as the fundamental pieces start to get locked in place.

The Internet itself was an innovation and it has served as an open platform for unprecedented innovations in networking, applications and services for years. The data provides evidence that the Internet is becoming ‘flatter’ (increasingly direct interconnection of content and consumer). Is this necessarily part of a trend towards a less-innovative platform?

Geoff Huston: It is true to note that the larger the Internet gets the more the common elements of the Internet become cemented in place and ‘fundamental innovation’ becomes stymied to the point of intractability. So, over time, the scope of innovation has narrowed. These days we talk about innovation in quite specific contexts. Innovation occurs in the level of the application space rather than in the underlying protocol space.

As we grow larger and as individual enterprises exercise increasing levels of over-arching control over ever-larger sectors within the Internet space, there are considerable pressures on the scope of innovation within the Internet. The result to date is that the number of available parameters that are accessible to competitive innovation and to new entrants into various market sectors in the Internet has declined.

So, in this explanation, there is no shortage of innovation—one just needs to know where to look for it. And the application layer is one area that continues to see enormous innovation.

Jon Crowcroft:How many apps are there in the iPhone and Android and Blackberry stores? We’re looking in the wrong place. Network-centric measures completely ignore the simple observation that the operational network defends against the unknown by blocking packets that look funny. Hence innovation hides above the network layer. We’re looking using the wrong eyes.

A more prosaic explanation may be that changes in the topological structure of the Internet are part of a technological ‘survival-of-the-fittest’. In that light, the evolution we see reflects the flexibility of the underlying architecture, and the trend is, therefore, a positive one.

Kenjiro Cho: The innovation of the Internet is much broader. One of the key insights in the original Internet design was that diversity is essential to technical evolution. New technologies appear and survive as a result of natural selection in technical and social environmental changes. The reported trend in the ISP hierarchy simply reflects the fact that the traditional connectivity business becomes less attractive in the market.

Rather than viewing this ‘flattening’ of the Internet topology as a threat to the potential for innovation, perhaps it is in itself proof that the architecture supports innovation.

Alissa Cooper: If innovation is viewed in a broad sense—encompassing developments at all layers of the Internet and in the business arrangements that support the Internet—the reports cited earlier appear to be pointing towards more innovation, not less. Both reports document how new and diverse entrants of different types have broken into what was previously a more consolidated interdomain traffic market. This trend speaks directly to innovations related to both network capacity and business arrangements. But because CDNs [content delivery networks] and content networks are only as valuable as the content they carry, their growth is also representative of the immense application-layer innovation that has characterized the Internet in recent years, including everything from advances in video compression technology to the evolution of the Web browser to the explosion of mobile applications. The ‘flatness’ of the network topology may actually represent how vibrant the network has become in supporting innovative applications, content, and services.

Joe Touch: Changes in the Internet backbone structure do not necessarily have any correlation to innovation. In some sense, the flattening itself indicates that the Internet architecture supports innovation, one where data centres are no longer at the edge. In another sense, the data path has no relation to the functionality that can be supported. Today, presuming the paper is correct, data are going more to these cores. Tomorrow, maybe they will go to the user-edge direction (finding YouTube videos on my home machine, rather than needing to upload them).

Bill St. Arnaud: No I don’t think it will mean less innovation. In fact this is another ‘meta’ innovation built on top of the original Internet that will probably speed up new services and applications. Just as most innovation in the Internet today is now on top of the HTTP stack, as opposed to the original TCP/IP, I suspect the flatter Internet will enable a new round of innovation.

While this is, on balance, a positive outlook, some important concerns to keep in mind when considering this trend are the openness and interoperability of the actual content delivery networks. As users come to expect high availability and highly responsive services, new content providers will increasingly be driven to make popular content available through those new channels.

Jonathan Zittrain: There is certainly cause for concern if content-delivery networks routinely bypass the standard Internet cloud. It suggests that those with lots of bytes to move will have to contend with a new range of gatekeepers other than their own choice of ISP. That leads to the requirement of making more deals in order to set up a new site or manage its growth, and more points of control should governments seek to filter out undesirable material.

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