Wednesday, January 27, 2010

The Internet

About 50 years ago, the US was developing a communication system that would survive a nuclear attack. A centralized command system would be vulnerable as a nuclear attack would handicap all equipment within the range of detonation. Destroying the central node would destroy all forms of communication. A decentralize system would offer the early system of a scale-free network, and the ideal system would be a mesh like network, redundant enough that if some nodes go down, alternative paths would maintain the connections.

Who would have thought that this network described would be like the Internet.

Understanding the topology of the Internet is a prerequisite for designing tools and services that offer a fast and reliable communication infrastructure. Though human made, the Internet is not centrally designed. Structurally, the Internet is closer to an ecosystem than a machine. Understanding the Internet hence would not just be mathematical or an engineering problem; a tangled tale of convergence of a massive scale gave birth to this jumbled information mass for historians and computer scientists to unravel.

It is important to know the Internet topology to design better tools and services. The current Internet protocols were developed with a small network and 1970s technology. As the network grow and new applications emerged, these protocols often fall short of our desires. Today, the Internet is almost exclusively used for the World Wide Web and e-mail. Had the original creators foreseen this, they would have designed a very different infrastructure, resulting in a much smoother experience. Instead we are locked in a technology that adapts only with great difficulty to the booming diversity and demand imposed by the increasingly creative use of the Internet.

Even as biologists unravel the science and codes behind our DNA, neither computer scientists nor sociologists know how this large-scale structure emerged and change until we put the pieces together in this fast evolving system.


The Web.

In the early days of the Internet, there were many webpages, and they were only often linked by a webring. But to find things effectively, you would need to find a very connected hub and search for information you need. Then robots started crawling and visiting Webpages, reading and indexing millions of Webpages. This was the beginning of piecing together a fragmented Web, the beginning of the search engine.

The topology of the Web limits our ability to see everything out there. The World Wide Web is a scale-free network, dominated by hubs and nodes with a large number of links, but also coexists with numerous small-scale structures that severely limit how much we can explore simply by clicking our way along the links.

Even with the world's best search engine, there are still many webpages that will not show up due to the Internet's topology. The Web can be best described as fragmented continents with occasional tubes and connections to other continents and islands. There are places you can go on a continent and sometimes going down that path does not lead you back.

The Internet grows faster than ever. Everyday, new pages are created, pictures, videos and other files uploaded. Our life is increasingly dominated by the Web with the explosion of Social Media, and it has pretty much changed our views on privacy and sharing our slice of life with others. It is a revolution in information access, a new way of life that previous generation have not enjoyed. As it continues to evolve, the question is, what do we have to lose in the meantime?

--Robin Low

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