Back to the future – did life actually begin in 1985?

Thursday, April 30 2015


Back to the future 1985 was an important year for time travel – at least at the movies. This was the year synonymous with the infamous ‘mullet’ haircut, Bobbysocks winning Eurovision and Mikhail Gorbachev leading the Soviet Communist Party. It would also have been difficult not to miss one of the most successful film releases of the year – Back to The Future. In 1985, long before the advent of triple-play or Netflix, this meant real, celluloid film. During 116 minutes, we were presented with the idea that a DeLorean, fork lightning and a dose of teenage angst could unleash a supernatural ability to travel in time and alter the course of history.

Something else happened in 1985 that was to have very real and far reaching consequences on our lives. It wasn’t afforded the pomp and circumstance of a Hollywood blockbuster and most people didn’t even notice it. Thirty years ago, the Internet backbone was effectively born (as the National Science Foundation Network) and ten years later, on the 30th of April 1995 to be precise, the ‘commercial’ Internet began. The NSFNet was decommissioned, paving way for private investment and expansion.

By chance, 2015 also happens to mark some other significant technological anniversaries –thirty years have passed since the launch of the first web browser and Metcalfe’s law hit the big 5-0 this year on the 19th of April.

Backbones, have, in a physiological sense, played a significant role in the very development of human beings themselves. Between 6 and 3 million years ago, human mobility evolved from a combination of human and ape-like motion. The human spine played a pivotal role in this evolutionary process and by helping us to climb and eventually walk upright, it was more or less instrumental to our survival.

When it comes to online evolution, we can apportion the same significance to the Internet backbone. Without a rigid network core, our online devices, experiences and indeed (quantifiable) selves simply would not function.

The Internet backbone grew from the inside out. Once the roots of the 56kb/s NSFNET backbone took hold, our lives were to change forever.

Initially the Internet was essentially a research (military) network. In 1995 it evolved into a research network with a commercial fabric and from there it developed into the privately owned and financed commercial incarnation that we are familiar with today. More recently, while it is still essentially a collection of ‘open’ private networks, the explosion of Internet data traffic has given rise to a number of Internet ‘content islands’ that shovel content directly from source to end-user, circumventing most of the public or ‘open’ Internet in the process.

As recently as 2007, Professor Michael Kleeman’s report, ‘Point of Disconnect’ suggested that without a massive expansion of network capacity in the US, the demand for Internet connectivity would outstrip the supply of available network resources.

Although the advent of SDN and NFV can, to a certain extent, facilitate the release of more capacity by increasing the efficiency of legacy networks, the gains are only really arithmetic. Certainly not enough to compensate for the impact of real life, exponential demand growth.

What has really saved the day are the advances in optical technology that we have benefitted from. These have allowed us to take significantly increase capacity from the same strands of fibers without having to having to wrap the same routes in ducts and fiber again and again and again and again…(I’ll stop there, I think you get my point!). Combined with an enormous increase in reach and the spread of affordable end-user devices we are at a point when online life has become an integral of life. Now there’s ‘just life’.

Just as 7 billion humans depend on their backbones for survival, 3 billion of these depend on the Internet backbone to stay connected. As we begin to connect the next 4 billion, one thing is for certain – while we might not always be aware of its existence, when the Internet backbone isn’t working properly, everyone notices.