[FoRK] Stand up and face the future

Jeff Bone jbone at place.org
Mon Dec 21 06:18:40 PST 2009

Stephen says:

> Buddylist @ AOL in 1995-1998 handled 3-8 million simultaneous users

Mmm hmmm....  and *surely* its system architecture, including  
technical architecture (mapping of the software architecture onto  
hardware resources, including the underlying networking  
infrastructure) could easily and linearly scale by the requisite 3  
orders of magnitude necessary to handle every person on the planet.   
(It couldn't, of course.  The networking infrastructure alone required  
for such a centralized service didn't exist at that time, and the  
solution is clearly subject to the "social supernode" problem eluded  
to in the linked article.  And as I recall, such fails among other  
things inspired AOL's purchase of Mirabilis, which even then continued  
to have occasional outages as spikes ripped past the pace at which  
they could grow system capacity...  Ding! circa the same timeframe  
tackled the first problem by being entirely decentralized / peer-to- 
peer, with uncoupled "servers" only serving to accomplish rendezvous  
and to host presence information when a user was offline, and  
otherwise leveraging the connectivity aspects of the social network  
graph along with peering in order to squeeze an order or two magnitude  
greater scalability (in theory) out of the system as a whole.  But  
even that sort of architecture doesn't address the supernode problem,  
or supernode clustering, etc....)

Now add every cell phone.  Now add in every building.  Every room in  
every building.  Every light switch.  Every power outlet.  Every  
appliance.  Every manufactured good --- every book, every can of cola,  
every article of clothing.  Every streetlight.  Every car, bike,  
train, train car, boat, plane, helicopter, etc.  Every webcam peering  
into every space, public or private.  Every GPS or other localizer  
embedded in or on something.  Every RFID or other smart tag.  Every  
piece of paper currency.  Every box being shipped...  all moving  
around relative to each other.  Push the network into everything,  
yammering at everything else.  How many orders of magnitude?  How many  
names / network addresses *per person on the planet?*  How many  
simultaneous conversations?  How much presence data at a time?  How  
much historical presence and communication data generated merely by  
logging?  How to mine all that data, much less sift through it and  
react to it in real time?

We can't even begin to understand the implications because, among  
other things, we only have a very tentative and nascent model for even  
*human*  networks at present, and that only captures static structure  
rather than, particularly, dynamics.  The communication patterns  
(static and dynamic) that will be common on the Internet of Things  
aren't particularly well-understood or even much-studied at present.   
(Robert Poor to the contrary...)

It's truly difficult to envision applications of such higher-order  
scale vs. what you presently have at your disposal;  about ten years  
ago one of the founders of Grande Communications, at the time of its  
inception, asked me what kinds of qualitatively different killer apps  
you could build if you had a gigabit / sec coming into your house...   
Sadly the only thing I could come up with at the time, despite much  
thought, was cloud-hosted infinite DVR and any-show any-time on-demand  
hi-def television.  (And that was actually more of a storage problem  
than a bandwidth / delivery problem, which realization led me down the  
road toward Deepfile...)  Maybe interactive hi-def games of a  
qualitatively different (but only evolutionarily so) variety.  Ugh.   
Vision fail.

Forget the apps.  I'm sort of with silky on at least part of this, we  
don't even have any idea what might *require* a truly planetary-scale  
network.  (Well, I have a few ideas...)  To crib a phrase, in such a  
case *the network is the application.*  But will it happen?  Surely,  
if we don't hit some existential risk boundary first.

Scale is everything.  Two problems:  figuring out what to do with it,  
and figuring out how to do it.  Not the same.  Both essential.


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