Internet flexibility and the end-to-end principle shine in wake of Covid-19

There are many fables about the oak tree and the willow tree, including one credited to the Chinese Taoists.  In such fables, the willow tree envies the strength of the oak tree. Then a big storm rolls in, and the oak tree breaks because while it is strong, it will not bend. The willow tree, on the other hand, bends but does not break.

We have lived with the Internet for so long now, we have forgotten just how amazing and wonderful it is; we have forgotten about a time when network service capacity was precisely divided into bandwidth slices that exactly matched the bandwidth used by each application layer connection, of a very limited number of network applications/services.

Compare that network-operator signaled application connections with what happened this week, when various entities suggested to Netflix, YouTube, and others, that maybe their services were in conflict with the sudden surge of people working/staying at home due to COVID-19. The response to these requests? Changes to network engineering? No. Changes to channel signaling for each connection of these OTT applications? No. A simple change, at the application level, outside of the network, so that video services would be streamed at a lower quality, using less bandwidth. This is the Internet as it was originally imagined, where important application layer decisions are made not within the network, but outside of the network.

Before this happened, I saw some posts on social media and other places that the problem was each connection was not guaranteed, with per-application service resource allocation, as needed, and as paid for. The business side of my brain says that it would actually be a healthier and more sustainable model for network operators – a discussion for another time. However, would the response required to deal with the traffic surge created by COVID-19 come as quickly, effectively, and harmoniously under that model? Would regulatory intervention have been required to effect change? We can only speculate, so I will leave those questions as an exercise for the reader.

To be completely fair and transparent, we now live in a world where consumers are extremely sensitive to the values espoused and practiced by companies supplying products and services. As I wrote last year, the Values-Driven Buyer has made a huge impact on business. Business leaders dare not get on the wrong side of consumer values. Netflix, YouTube, and others may well have made the decision they made based on their own values and principles alone, but there can be little doubt that even if they did, they would have been aware of the potential problems they may have encountered in the future, if they were judged as doing harm, at a time of global crisis. Not to mention inviting increasing attention from regulators.

The great strength of IP networks has always been that the network adapts to the application, not the application to the network. As a result, the Internet has grown to support many different network flows – small packets, large packets, constant streams, ad hoc datagrams, low-bandwidth, high-bandwidth, to name a few.

In the face of COVID-19, the Internet has been more like a willow tree than an oak tree. It has bent, but it has not broken. The major sources of bandwidth consumption have also bent, without breaking.

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