Guest post – Dean Takahashi – 6/25/09
The Internet was built to withstand nuclear attack. That was why it was built in the ’60s in the first place, as a communications system with redundancy built in so that the military could communicate even if one of the nodes went down.
We saw some of that happen today, as news of Michael Jackson’s death spread like wildfire through the Internet. TMZ.com got the scoop about Jackson being sent to the hospital. But the site went down from the surge of traffic. The LA Times reported he was in a coma, but then that site went down too. The LA Times managed to report that Jackson was dead, and then everyone else started buzzing about it. Twitter went down. Keynote Systems, which measures web site performance, said that the following sites all slowed significantly: ABC, AOL, LA Times, CNN Money and CBS. Starting at 230 pm PST, the average load time for a news site slowed from 4 seconds to 9 seconds.
This is not supposed to happen. More than a decade ago, when I was writing about computer servers and Sun Microsystems was advertising itself as “We’re the dot in dotcom,” the hardware vendors were all talking about “utility computing.” Carly Fiorina, then the chief executive of HP, touted “adaptive computing,” where software would automatically route traffic from one overloaded server to another. Sun called its version of utility computing “N1,” after the code name for a project that aimed at rebalancing server loads on the fly. IBM, meanwhile, operated on a vision that it called “on demand.”
These visions were great and they all made sense based on an understanding of traffic as a flow of data. Companies such as Akamai set up networks to deliver video in real time for events, such as Victoria’s Secret’s annual lingerie show on the web. In years past, Victoria’s Secret had lots of trouble keeping a site up. But now it’s not as hard. Akamai sets up server centers around the country to feed video to users as needed. But now we’re talking the need to update in micro-seconds.
Servers have gotten better at being multi-headed beasts, especially with the arrival of hardware innovations such as low-power processors and chips with multiple cores, or processing engines, on a single chip. Virtualization software from VMware and others has arrived. That allows a server to split itself into two or three or more machines, just like the old mainframe computers, which had to do tasks in batches by necessity. Each instance of the server can handle a computing task, like fetching a web page from memory and sending it back to the user that requested it. Servers have become like hydras, doing all sorts of these trivial computing tasks at the same time.
And yet networks still buckle under the weight of traffic when something like today’s events shakes the whole world. Mobile networks are particularly weak, as AT&T’s activation problems related to the launch of the iPhone 3G S showed. In some ways, the servers worked today. As one site went down, another picked up the torch. But the transitions were rocky. The promise of utility computing is that you will be able to switch on and off server capacity as if you were switching on and off your lights.
And that leads me to consider the future. As tragic as Michael Jackson’s death is, it’s only a small taste of what would happen in a true calamity. If the servers go down, how are we going to get our Gmail or Yahoo Mail? Who will be there to listen when we collectively Tweet for help? What will we do if the emergency plan is stored on the network?
It’s a wake-up call for the web, and for those who are building its infrastructure and plumbing for it.
(Dean writes for http://venturebeat.com/)
What’s going to happen when we can watch anything on-line we see on TV today or in the theaters instantly on-line (and that image is delivered to your living room or any TV) ? What happens to the ‘per subscriber’ guarantees that programmers pay cable ops to carry their satellite feed? And when I can get CNN for free on-line instantly via the Internet? Or Noggin? Or Lifetime? Or Disney? Right now I subscribe to Time Warner – I get about 150 channels. I think we watch the following: 3 ‘local’ channels (ABC, NBC and CBS), Lifetime (wife), Noggin and Boom (daughter) and ESPN and an occasional HBO movie. That’s 8 channels. If I pushed that I can probably include several others like Turner Classic Films, AMC and Discovery. But not too many beyond that.
Since I can remember, cable companies have controlled what I watch and when I watched it. If a cable op. didn’t like the a channel, it wouldn’t carry it and we couldn’t see it. We were in a closed, 4 wall environment. We are still in that environment, but the walls are coming down. Very slowly. And the big three TV guys are in total denial. They are programming like its still 1999.
In this new world of ‘TVnomics’, I no longer need to hope that my cable operator will carry a particular program. With the likes of Hulu, YouTube, TV.com, and a few other content aggregators, I’m no longer tethered forever to Time-Warner. Using Amazon or Netflix I can watch on-line nearly anything I can find on my Time-Warner delivered TV service. And this has only really been possible since approximately 2 yrs. and 3 months ago (May, 2008) when Hulu launched.
So we have been seeing very ‘non-traditional’ programming hawking itself as a TV show for the web. Shows on no budgets, small ones and even big one. Some of these shows are being pushed out to the web by the networks (trying to find some viewer traction), and some by independent suppliers. All of them for the most part are sub-par and relatively few advertisers have climbed aboard.
Instead, the networks think that if they tease the traditional TV audience they have with bits and snippets of content found on TV pushed onto the web, they can have TV on the web or call it ‘Web TV’. Why in the world don’t CBS, NBC or ABC stream this ‘live’ simultaneously with broadcast? Why can’t they put the same show and advertisers on-line day and date with its broadcast on TV? Won’t this substantially help grow the very business on-line they fear now? Yes, I bet it would.
And in the long run, not too much of what they can do will prevent us all from getting it on-line. Once the majority of us have fat pipes able to deliver a TV show and watch a show seamlessly (think FIOS) as if it WAS TV, then instead of their being 95 million cable homes and 200 million homes with TV’s, there will be hundreds of millions of homes with TV’s – they’ll just be connected to a fat, dumb pipe. This changing of the guard won’t take that long – figure in the 5 years or so, things will REALLY shift.