How the Internet Works

undersea_internet1This video was passed onto me by my darling wife, who is a whiz at picking out videos and articles that I would find interesting! Entitled “There and Back Again: A Packet’s Tale, this educational video clip was produced by the World Science Festival – a New York City-based non-profit organization committed to scientific education and public awareness. And in it, they explain how this complex organism known as the internet actually works.

Using a single search item as an example, the clip lets the viewer see how a packet of data – one of trillions of internet interactions – goes from one side of the planet to the other and then back again, all in the space of a second. In addition to explaining how such volumes of data are handled, they also draw attention to the fact that the internet depends upon real physical connections.

This second aspect of the video is very important, in that it reminds us that despite what could computing and wireless teach us – that data is free-floating mass moving through the air – that the world-wide web is still grounded in solid objects, such as copper and optic cables, before it gets to your wireless router. And even though it is only three and a half minutes in length, the clip is quite informative. Enjoy!


Source:
worldsciencefestival.com

Visualizing the Internet

Submarine fiber optic cables around the worldOrdinarily, when one talks about visualizing cyberspace, they think of massive neon-structures or cityscapes made up of cascading symbols of data. While these images – the creation of writers like William Gibson and film makers like the Waschowski Brothers – are certainly visually appealing, they are not exactly realistic, and hardly do the real thing justice.

Thankfully, a recent article over at policymic has presented us with a new and interesting way of visualizing this thing we call the World Wide Web. By compiling images of the various deep-sea cables that allow us to transmit information at the speed of light, author Laura Dimon reminds us that while the internet may be made up of trillions of bits of data moving about at any given moment, it is dependent upon real-world physical connections.

Submarine Cable Map 2012And these connections are extensive, with more than 550,000 fiber optic cables running along the ocean floor that are responsible for transmitting trillions upon trillions of interactions per day. According to the Washington Postthese cables “wrap around the globe to deliver emails, web pages, other electronic communications and phone calls from one continent to another.”

But surprisingly, few people seem to truly appreciate this. In an age of WiFi where more and more networks are being added to our public airwaves every day, the perception that all this information is something ethereal seems to have become rooted. Luckily, real-world events – such as the severing of several Seacom cables off the coast of Alexandria back in March – have managed to remind people just how grounded and potentially vulnerable the internet is.

Global Internet Map 2012Given our immense and increasing reliance on the internet for business, personal communications, entertainment and shopping, one would that we as a people would possess at least a passing knowledge of how it works. But as Eric Schmidt, Google’s executive chair, claimed in his book The New Digital Age: “The internet is among the few things humans have built that they don’t truly understand.”

Luckily, Laura provides a breakdown in her article which is a good start:

It consists of tens of thousands of interconnected networks run by service providers, individual companies, universities, and governments. There are three major parts to its construction: the networks that physically connect to each other (with about 12 that are particularly significant); the data-storing centers; and the architecture that lies in between. That is where it gets really interesting.

Global Internet Map 2011And just in case this doesn’t provide a clear picture, there are numerous images that have been created by organizations like Telecom Maps and The Fiber Optic Association. These show just how immense, extensive, and crisscrossed the cables that bring us all our emails, videos, blog feeds, and ability to surf are.

In addition, they also remind us that the historic gap between the developed and underdeveloped world persists into the information age. For every network of cables, there are cable landing stations that connect the deep sea lines to the continent they are servicing. As the maps show, Europe has more international network capacity than any other world region.

Global Voice Traffic Map 2010

They also remind us that the once undisputed technological supremacy of the United States has been slowly eroding as humanity enters the 21st Century. This has been especially apparent within the last decade, where localized service providers have eschewed the US as a central hub and begun to connect their networks to other countries and regions.

Fascinating, and educational. I hope someday to be able to use these sorts of visualizations in the classroom, as a means of letting students know what enables all their surfing habits. I imagine most of them will be surfing on their smartphones as I speak!

Sources: policymic.com, telegeography.com, thefoa.org

Cyberwars: Cutting Off An Entire Continent

undersea_internet1Many people thought the Cyberbunker attack was impressive, a massive spam attack that clogged up the internet with a mind-boggling 300 gigabits per second. But at the same time, another cyberattack took place in a different part of the world, one which threatened to cut off an entire continent from the internet –  a connection equaling 1.28 terabits of information. But what’s especially impressive about it is that the men who attempted this relied on nothing more than an axe.

Yes, according to the Egyptian coastguard, three men were intercepted off the coast of Alexandria a few weeks ago who were attempting to sever the SEA-ME-WE 4 undersea cable with an axe. This cable is one of the main connections between Asia and Europe, running from France to Malaysia and linking Italy, north Africa, the middle east and south Asia. Though the identities and motives of the men have not yet been released, Egyptian authorities were clear that they were getting to the bottom of it.

undersea_internetThough unsuccessful, this recent attempt at info-terrorism is a startling reminder that the internet is not the ethereal thing, and still depends upon real, physical connections. With the expansion in recent years of wireless networks and cloud computing, people seem to have forgotten this very thing. For the most part, nations and continents are connected thanks to thousands of underground and undersea cables which are quite vulnerable to sabotage and natural hazards.

And while most big countries have several redundant cables running to their shores, the loss of even a single one means that all the traffic must be jammed through remaining connections, causing congestion. And there is nothing to stop determined attackers from targeting several cables at once. Indeed, since many cables go through geographic chokepoints like the Suez, it wouldn’t be difficult to disrupt a whole bunch of connections in a brief period of time.

undersea_internetcableWorse yet, this last attack seems to be one of many such attacks targeting cables running to the coast of Egypt last month. Several cables were reported severed during the last week of March, and authorities initially suspected it was the result of shipping. The cables were part of the Seacom, a network of cables that serve much of Africa, the Persian Gulf and India.

SEACOM-map-largeThis latest attack seems to establish that this is a part of a pattern designed to cut Egypt off from the internet, which in many ways mirrors a series of incidents that took place back in 2008. The damage has since been repaired, but given recent events in the country, one has to wonder what agenda could be behind it all.

The most obvious possibilities include radical elements that want to cut off Egypt from foreign influence, or pro-government, pro-conservative elements that want to sever support for pro-democratic and opposition groups abroad. The success of the Arab Spring in Egypt was due in no small part to a number of social media campaigns that channeled support to the Eyptian people. Perhaps someone wants to avoid a similar situation in the future…

undersea_cable_mapDifficult to say. What seems most important though is the example this could set for extremists in other parts of the world. As the map above demonstrates, there are many fiber optics networks worldwide, and many of them pass through territory which could be easily accessed by terrorists or those looking to shut down the world wide web. Considering the effect this could have on the global economy, not to mention on geopolitical relations, it’s something to be on the lookout for!

Sources: qz.com, itnewsafrica.com