Web Experts Warn of Internet 'Exaflood'

Dennis Faas's picture

The rise of online video sites could cause major problems for the Internet as a whole, according to researchers. The amount of traffic on the web is increasing much quicker than its capacity. Brett Swanson of the Discover Institute says this is most likely to affect the 'edges' of the Internet, the final mile or so of cabling between telephone exchanges and peoples homes.

He has coined the phrase 'exaflood', which refers to an exabyte, or one thousand million gigabytes of date. Until recently, an exabyte had simply been a mathematical concept, but Cisco estimates total Internet traffic will reach 10 exabytes a month next year. (Source: Cisco.com [PDF file])

To put that into context, the data sent via the Internet every two weeks will be roughly the same amount as it would take to store a transcript of every word spoken in history. (Source: nytimes.com)

The biggest change has been the trend towards better quality audio and video. More people are downloading songs recorded at a higher bitrate, and high definition video is becoming more popular.

The problem is worsened by the popularity of 'peer to peer' technology. This system, which includes 'torrent' sites, involves downloading a file in hundreds of different pieces, each from a different Internet user. This means ordinary home users are simultaneously uploading data rather than simply downloading it. That clogs up the cables in both directions, which is a particular problem as home broadband services were never designed for so much uploading.

The Nemertes Research firm says the current problems will come to a head around 2010, but argues that predictions of a total breakdown are exaggerated. Instead users will "increasingly find themselves encountering Internet brownouts or snow days, during which performance will (seemingly inexplicably) degrade."

Now debate must turn to the best solution. Some say it is as simple as adding bandwidth; analyst David Isenberg says it's cheaper to have too much capacity than to try to manage an overloaded system. Others say the system itself needs changing, and that the local telephone network simply isn't suitable for high quality Internet video. (Source: arstechnica.com)

This is hardly the first doomsday web prediction. Back in December 1995, Bob Metcalfe (who invented the Ethernet technology used for most computer networks) warned of an impending 'gigalapse'. He claimed Internet traffic the following year would increase so rapidly it would cause a "catastrophic collapse". At a 1997 Internet conference he literally ate his words, putting a copy of his article in a blender and drinking the resulting pulp.

Chances are the Internet isn't going to collapse any time soon. But capacity problems seem a permanent inevitability; after all, it's only human nature to never be satisfied by technology and always demand something faster, bigger and better.

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