11 Dec 2013

Will upgrading the internet to cope with traffic make big players too dominant?

“Hi – fancy talking about the Software Defined Network?”

It sounds like the cocktail party intro from hell – but this geeky concept could herald big changes in the online world upon which we increasingly rely.

Ever wondered how, when you visit a website, the pictures and text find their way to your computer? Well, between you and the website is a breathtakingly intricate network of links.

Your computer sends a request to another computer called a Domain Name Server – which translates the friendly-sounding website name – www.channel4.com/news for example – into a string of numbers. Those numbers tell the server where to go to find the website content.

Your request then hops along a series of routers: pieces of kit which direct the request to the right place.

At the moment those routers are pretty much left to themselves to decide when they’re overwhelmed with requests. If so, they feed that info back down the chain, and between them the routers find the path of least resistance.

It’s the flexible, fast, responsive system that makes the internet work. But it’s starting to show its age.

When it emerged during the Cold War, almost no-one envisioned a time when the internet would handle the 140,000 hours of video uploaded to YouTube daily. The net isn’t exactly grinding to a halt, but there are serious concerns about how the chummy network of routers will hold up against traffic now measured in zettabytes.

Wouldn’t it be useful to have someone or something in control of all those routers, to spot the congested parts early and divert around them? Welcome to the Software Defined Network.

The idea is to get the routers to talk to a central controller which can direct traffic in a smarter way. The upshot: websites will load quicker.

Guess who’s in on the ground floor on this one? It begins with a G….


The tech giant already owns large amounts of the fibre-optic cable that speeds our internet traffic around the world, and runs huge data centres, as Andrew Blum discovered in his fascinating book Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet.

Google is now working hard on Software Defined Networking, which it compares it to a taxi dispatcher “who intelligently matches taxis with the paths that best meet their needs based on current conditions.”

The rest of the industry is also waking up to this. The companies that build the kit you never see, but which brings you the world online, are working out how they can secure a piece of this crucial new field.

It could help with security too. Hackers often try to overwhelm websites by overloading them with requests (a Denial of Service, or DOS attack). A smarter system could spot the attack as it emerges and defeat it.

“Rather than plugging costly sensors to detect attacks you can simply add software that has the intelligence to detect attacks and reroute attack traffic to “cleansing centers”, which can detect which traffic is legitimate and which is malicious.” said Graham Moore of security firm Radware.

Why should you care? If websites load quicker, that’s good, right?

Not necessarily. Let’s take that taxi dispatcher analogy; at the moment when you visit a website you’re effectively hailing a taxi in the street to take you there, and each taxi driver is individually responsible for navigating by whatever they think is the best route.

Relying on a taxi dispatcher sounds good, but what if you wanted a taxi to a destination the dispatcher doesn’t like? What if you actually want a taxi to take you to a competitor’s cab firm? Is the dispatcher going to help? Or dump you in the oldest, slowest cab?

That’s the concern with the Software Defined Network: it takes an autonomous, collaborative system where power is spread out, and it starts to centralise that power.

He who pays the piper calls the tune – and whoever makes the biggest gains in Software Defined Networking could have a massive influence on the internet’s future.