Fast and furious under the sea


When the Internet was first getting used by ordinary commercial businesses back in the early 1990s, those businesses didn’t own any of the underlying infrastructure besides their own connection to the nearest peering point. My how times have changed. This week, Microsoft and Facebook announced they are building the next transatlantic cable to exclusively carry their own Internet traffic between their American and European data centers.

When you think about this, it isn’t that surprising. After all, it represents the next step in the evolution of how private companies have built their computing systems on top of the public Internet. It isn’t the first such private cable: Google has been partnering with telcos for years to share their bandwidth, and a new connection from the US to Japan went online earlier this year. Facebook (and others) are even building their own servers, routers and racks out of specialized spare parts, since they need so many of them to run their online businesses.

Another result of this is how many businesses are running without any data centers at all, using private clouds and co-locating their servers at peering points. What used to be all about the connection to the Internet is now about owning the entire stack, down under the sea if you are big enough to afford it.

Certainly, the cost of Internet bandwidth has plummeted in the 25 or so years that a business could buy it. In the early 1990s, if your business was big enough, you purchased a T-1 digital line that topped out at the then amazing speed of 1.5 Mb/s. If you had a lot of demand, you could get a T-3 line that was 30 times as fast.

Of course, when you tell folks today about these early speeds, they look at you strangely and start thinking you date back to the days when there were payphones with actual dials. Given that today the worst DSL speed you can get from your local phone company still gives you a better connection than that old T-1 line it is pretty amazing how fast and far we have come. Today a cable Internet connection can deliver at least 10 Gb/s rates (at least in the download direction). Google and other fiber providers are talking about 100 and 1000 GB/s speeds in both directions, and there are cities (such as Chattanooga) where you can get a gigabit connection at every address. These places have realized that supplying a ultra-fast Internet is an essential part of their municipal services, just like supplying water and staffing the fire and police departments.

And that Microsoft/Facebook undersea cable? It will start out carrying 160 Tb/s, which is at least twice as fast as older cables. I can’t even think at those speeds.

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