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Cringely and the Mythical “NAP”s

The normally reliable and interesting (if not always technical or incredibly detailed) Robert X. Cringely allowed a recent column to be marred by painful errors and misconceptions. Which is really too bad, because the point he was trying to make about net neutrality is pretty much exactly the point that I made in a previous blog.

Essentially, both Cringely and I (although he is much more famous, of course) are saying that this issue is substantially more complicated than the foolish politicians commenting on it are saying. As I wrote: “So is a two-tier Internet coming? From a performance perspective, it’s already here. Any carrier can offer a “normal” quality of service (speed, latency, jitter, whatever) to everything and an “enhanced” quality of service to some special things.” As Cringely writes: “Last week’s column pointed out how shallow are the current arguments, which ignore many of the technical and operational realities of the Internet, especially the fact that there have long been tiers of service and that ISPs have probably been treating different kinds of packets differently for years and we simply didn’t know it.” So there you go. So what’s my beef? It all boils down to one paragraph.

Cringely writes:

One example of unequal treatment is whether packets connect from backbone to backbone through one of the public Network Access Points (NAPs) or through a private peering arrangement between ISPs or backbone providers. The distinction between these two forms of interconnection is vital because the NAPs are overloaded all the time, leading to dropped packets, retransmissions, network congestion, and reduced effective bandwidth. Every ISP that has a private peering agreement still has the right to use the NAPs and one has to wonder how they decide which packets they put in the diamond lane and which ones they make take the bus?

What the heck is he talking about? What is a “NAP”? Why would anyone need the right to use it? This entire paragraph is stuck in 1993 and I think it desperately wants to escape and join us all in the present. Let’s review a bit (but just a tiny little bit, because Internet history is not my strong suit and it’s terribly contentious; so much so that I guarantee that I will get 8.7 metric tonnes of doodoo for every sentence I type about it from people who wish to quibble with one or more facts. In this case, the vaguer, the better.)

The Internet started as a government-funded project of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). As more networks and companies began connecting to the Internet the National Science Foundation (NSF) established four Network Access Points (NAPs) for interconnection of those networks. These were the original NAPs and probably what Cringely thinks he’s talking about. It was at these four locations that every network exchanged traffic with every other network (with few exceptions), and it’s true that they were sometimes congested.

But that’s not how the Internet works anymore, and not how it has worked in a very long time. The Internet is run by corporations and organizations that administer their own networks, and manage the interconnection of those networks with other networks. Sometimes they do this via peering, or settlement-free interconnection. Sometimes, they do this by buying transit from someone else. Frequently, the connections between networks are private (a single circuit between my network and yours, for example). Sometimes these interconnections are via a shared, switched fabric operated by someone like Equinix, Switch and Data, or Terremark in the US, or by LINX, AMS-IX or HKIX (and dozens of others) elsewhere. The original NAPs still exist, but they are legacy platforms inhabited by only a few networks for legacy interconnections. Modern network buildouts don’t even consider building to these legacy facilities. They simply are not relevant anymore (some Verizon/MCI/UUnet people might take exception to this, but I’d be surprised if they can provide facts to dispute it seriously).

The point is this: the fantasy world inhabited by Cringely where there are NAPs that matter, to which access is restricted according to some “right to connect”, simply does not exist. It’s too bad that this paragraph was inserted in this otherwise interesting piece.

The entire point of the argument was this: the discussion about Network Neutrality is tainted by a lack of credible, technical detail. There are legitimate threats to the future of the Internet but none of the politicians or public commentators discussing this stuff are succeeding in saying anything useful about the subject (as far as I have seen). Network architecture, operations, and policy are not simple on the Internet. And it’s a shame to see someone who is trying to make that point to utterly fail to get the details right.

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