Thursday, June 12, 2014

Thoughts on Blum's book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

I found the book Tubes by Andrew Blum to be a good read to give one a physical feel for what the internet is. The thesis is that even though the internet involves a lot of abstract and complex ideas in signal processing, packet switching and so forth, it is fundamentally realized as physical locations, wires and cables strung around the world. To some degree I believe that this is true; however, there is also a sense that to really understand the internet, one needs to delve into the abstractions of computing.

The book starts out with a physical history of the internet and how it began as a link between UCLA and SRI and then branched out from the West Coast. The book chronicles how this network of networks was linked together at one central switching point, which initially happened to be around Tyson's Corner in Virginia also referred to as MAE-East. Tyson's Corner is conveniently located near the NSA; while this book was written long before Edward Snowden, it certainly is a harbinger to what was to follow.

The book then goes through the history of all the different switching points focusing on some of the main ones, the exchanges in Palo Alto, Amsterdam and Frankfurt and Telehouse in London as well as the 3 exchanges in New York City. They all have different cultures but the basic idea is that physically they all have cables connecting one network to another -- which one can actually see.

A particular discussion that was very interesting was how MAE-East evolved into a modern facility in a nondescript suburb called Ashburn, Virginia and how this building in a sense epitomized the modern inter-networking culture with all its security and "cyberrific" technology. In contrast the switching centers that are profiled in New York City have less of the ultramodern feel, their structure being dictated by the fact that they are actually converted from old telephone company infrastructure that has been re-purposed from copper to fiber.

After the discussion of switches the book moves on to data centers, which have an extremely secretive culture. The description of the Google data centers in Eastern Oregon is quite comical -- even to the point of the company not acknowledging their existence for much of their history. The data-center culture is also well contrasted with that of the network engineers ("Nanog" members) who are in charge of the switching centers. These people have to be social and make connections.

One area that the book does not delve into much detail about, which is what I would have liked, is with the underlying technology of the internet. The book does talk a little about the switching technology in terms of pulsing lasers, the tera-bits that can be crammed down a fiber, and the 1000-fold slower amount of time for a bit to traverse a switch than cross the whole continent. However, I'd like to have learned more.

In a sense the book makes up for its lack of technical detail in its great accessibility and easy reading. Andrew Blum writes extremely well. I particularly liked the many good quotes that he compiled such as Churchill's comment that "We shape our buildings, and then our buildings shape us." And also his quote about whether email is "Newtonian or Quantum," the latter representing the state where one's email is scattered over many data centers.

My tags: "Gettysburg Tryptophan Tubes" and
Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet
by Andrew Blum