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Why we need to transform the Internet for a cloud-native world

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Jason Bloomberg, President, Intellyx

When people talk about the Internet of Things (IoT), their focus inevitably falls on the "things," because we all take the Internet itself for granted.

But we ignore the Internet at our peril, because today's cloud-native approaches to IT are disrupting the nature of the Internet itself.

Given how fundamental and ubiquitous this half-century-old network of networks is, it's time for a closer look at the changes that are afoot.

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IoT and the explosion of endpoints

Let's start with the IoT, since, after all, "Internet" is right in the name. To be sure, we must have connectivity to the various sensors and actuators that make up the IoT, as well as all the devices, from autonomous vehicles to smart thermostats, that constitute all the "things."

Connectivity, however, is merely the price of admission for the enterprises that are building out IoT-based solutions. Even more disruptive: the collapse of the Internet's fundamental hub-and-spoke topology.

This centralized approach is breaking down because of the massive data the IoT generates. "Enterprises use IoT technology to collect data at the edge that can be used to improve operations, provide a more personalized customer experience, and inform decision-making across the enterprise," said Martin Bosshardt, CEO of Open Systems, in a presentation at a Gartner conference in June.

But as more endpoints are introduced, network complexity increases, he said. "If all data must be routed through a central data center, the lack of adequate bandwidth and low latency won’t be able to deliver on the promise of IoT."

In other words, organizations are increasingly processing data at the edge—not only the "cloud edge," where content delivery networks play, but also the "near edge"—enterprise or telecom mini-data centers that can run anywhere, from cell towers to retail establishments.

This trend is sowing disruption far and wide. Software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN), which in large part sought to shift management of remote compute resources to a central management point, now must work within an intentionally distributed network environment.

Artificial intelligence (AI) is also gaining a foothold on the near edge, since AI inference is both data-intensive and well-suited for extracting value from IoT data feeds.

Overall, the rise of edge computing is impacting the level of control that enterprises have over the Internet, says Alex Henthorn-Iwane, vice president of product marketing at ThousandEyes. 

"You no longer own the software and the infrastructure and the networks that you’re connecting over, that users are connecting over. When you lose that control, you really, really need the visibility [across the Internet] so that you can optimize, and so you can also fix issues when they happen."
Alex Henthorn-Iwane

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The increasing complexity of the Internet

The IoT's impact on edge computing is only part of the shifting Internet story. In fact, there are many other technologies that are disrupting how organizations manage their Internet deployments.

Further obscuring matters is the fact that the Internet is a complex and uncontrolled environment, within which Internet service providers (ISPs), geolocation, the Domain Name System (DNS), content delivery network (CDN) providers, and many third-party content suppliers "play highly intermingled roles in site performance," according to the 2019 Digital Experience Performance Benchmark Report by ThousandEyes.

"Significant performance variations across CDN providers, ISPs and geographies exist even in the highly mature U.S. market," the report said, "making real-time operational visibility important on an ongoing basis from a variety of geographical and Internet user vantage points."

This explosion of Internet technologies and use cases is causing experts to sound alarms about Internet performance, since the original designers of the now-aging network had no idea of the uses we'd be burdening it with today.

ISPs are among those sounding alarms, says Jeff Finkelstein, executive director of advanced technology at Cox Communications. 

"There are some concerns with the current architecture of the Internet in that those current and future services that require low latency or high bandwidth cannot be guaranteed end to end. While we can control the transit of packets on our own service provider networks, the Internet is still the Wild West when it comes to maintaining packet markings as they transit its many web-like paths."
Jeff Finkelstein

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Updating the 'net

In fact, there are several efforts underway to update the Internet's core protocols—a Herculean effort that would require the participation of every Internet infrastructure provider.

The limits of the core Internet protocols have become apparent, especially regarding performance, said Mark Nottingham, senior principal engineer at Fastly and member of the Internet Architecture Board; he also co-chairs the IETF's HTTP and QUIC working groups.

Because of structural problems in the application and transport protocols, the network has not been used as efficiently as it could be, Nottingham said, leading to end users perceiving performance problems, in particular, as latency.

"There is growing tension between the needs of Internet users overall and those of the networks who want to have access to some amount of the data flowing over them. Particularly affected will be networks that want to impose policy upon those users, for example, enterprise networks."
Mark Nottingham

The QUIC group that Nottingham belongs to is working on just such a protocol. QUIC (Quick UDP Internet Connections) is a new, encrypted-by-default Internet transport protocol. "[It] provides a number of improvements designed to accelerate HTTP traffic as well as make it more secure, with the intended goal of eventually replacing TCP and TLS on the web," said Alessandro Ghedini, systems engineer at CloudFlare.

5G to the rescue?

Novel Internet protocols such as QUIC, should the world adopt them, will unquestionably be disruptive. But no family of technologies is as disruptive to the Internet as 5G. As the global replacement for 4G LTE mobile networking technology, 5G, along with Wi-Fi and Bluetooth, opens up new capabilities that will drive unforeseen business models.

Some of those in the mobile service industry are sanguine about the opportunities such disruption will bring. For example, the business case of using 5G as cloud computing, in particular at the edge, is "very much addressed to enterprises where you can actually transform logistic flows" by having 5G with extreme low latency, enormous throughput, and so on, said Hans Vestberg, chairman and CEO of Verizon.

While the full rollout of 5G technologies will likely take a decade, certain 5G services are already available on the market today, and the telecoms are in full 5G rollout mode. The introduction of virtual technology in telecommunications networks will effectively reduce TCO (total cost of ownership), achieve business innovation, and help operators to transform to 5G-ready networks, found the report "Migration from Physical to Virtual Network Functions—Best Practices and Lessons Learned," by the GSMA telecom trade association.

"Operators must begin the transition to cloud-based network architectures now to ensure their infrastructure is ready to support new services as they emerge."

Be prepared for massive changes

For the telecoms, building out the near edge of data centers at cell towers and local points of presence is critical to their 5G rollout, as is supporting value-added services at the edge. All of these efforts add complexity to the Internet while raising the bar on performance.

For enterprises that care about the functionality, performance, and security of their Internet deployments, the increasing complexity and disruptive innovation of the Internet presents both opportunities and risks.

One fact, however, is patently obvious: Regardless of the dynamic cloud-native technology landscape that all organizations face today, neglecting the Internet itself is a recipe for failure. It's time to stop taking it for granted.

Disclosure: At the time of writing, Open Systems and ThousandEyes are Intellyx customers. None of the other organizations mentioned are Intellyx customers.

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