Dvorak: When Will the Internet Collapse?

When is the Internet going to collapse? The answer is NEVER.

The Internet is amazing for no other reason than that it hasn't simply collapsed, never to be rebooted. Over a decade ago, many pundits were predicting an all-out catastrophic failure, and back then the load was nothing compared with what it is today.

So how much more can this network take?

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Let's look at the basic changes that have occurred since the Net became chat-worthy around 1990.

First of all, only a few people were on the Net back in 1990, since it was essentially a carrier for e-mail (spam free!), newsgroups, gopher and FTP. These capabilities remain.

But the e-mail load has grown to phenomenal proportions, and become burdened with megatons of spam. In one year, the amount of spam can exceed a decade's worth, say 1990 to 2000, of all Internet traffic.

It's actually the astonishing overall growth of the Internet that is amazing.

In 1990, the total U.S. backbone throughput of the Internet was 1 terabyte, and in 1991 it doubled to 2 TB. Throughput continued to double until 1996, when it jumped to 1,500 TB. After that huge jump, it returned to doubling, reaching 80,000 to 140,000 TB in 2002.

This ridiculous growth rate has continued as more and more services are added to the burden. The jump in 1996 is attributable to the one-two punch of the universal popularization of the Web and the introduction of the MP3 standard and subsequent music file-sharing.

More recently, the emergence of inane video clips (YouTube and the rest) as universal entertainment has continued to slam the Net with overhead, as has large video file sharing via BitTorrent and other systems.

Then VoIP came along, and IPTV is next. All the while, e-mail numbers are in the trillions of messages, and spam has never been more plentiful and bloated. Add blogging, vlogging, and Twittering and it just gets worse.

According to some expensive studies, the growth rate has begun to slow down to something like 50 percent per year. But that's growth on top of huge numbers. Petabytes.

So when does this thing just grind to a halt or blow up?

Doomsday Never Comes

To date, we have to admit that the structure of the Net is robust, to say the least. This is impressive, considering the fact that experts were predicting a collapse in the 1990s.

Robust or not, this Internet is a transportation system. It transports data. All transportation systems eventually need upgrading, repair, basic changes or reinvention. But what needs to be done here?

This, to me, has come to be the big question. Does anything at all need to be done, or do we run it into the ground and then fix it later? Is this like a jalopy leaking oil and water about to blow, or an organic perpetual-motion machine that fixes itself somehow?

Many believe that the Net has never collapsed because it does tend to fix itself.

A decade ago we were going to run out of IP addresses — remember? It righted itself, with rotating addresses and subnets.

Many of the Net's improvements are self-improvements. Only spam, viruses and spyware represent incurable diseases that could kill the organism.

I have to conclude that the worst-case scenario for the Net is an outage here or there, if anywhere.

After all, the phone system, a more machine-intensive system, never really imploded after years and years of growth, did it? While it has outages, it's actually more reliable than the power grid it sits on.

Why should the Internet be any different, now that it is essentially run by phone companies who know how to keep networks up?

And let's be real here. The Net is being improved daily, with newer routers and better gear being constantly hot-swapped all over the world. This is not the same Internet we had in 1990, nor is it what we had in 2000.

While phone companies seem to enjoy nickel-and-diming their customers to death with various petty scams and charges, they could easily charge one flat fee and spend their efforts on quality-of-service issues and improving overall network speed and throughput.

That will never happen, and phone companies will forever be loathed. But when all is said and done, it's because of them that the Internet will never collapse. That's the good news.

The bad news is they now own the Internet — literally — and they'll continue to play the nickel-and-dime game with us.

Go off-topic with John C. Dvorak.

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