[FoRK] The Internet: A Series Of 'Tubes' (And Then Some)

Eugen Leitl eugen at leitl.org
Fri Jun 1 07:38:23 PDT 2012


http://m.npr.org/news/front/153701673?singlePage=true

The Internet: A Series Of 'Tubes' (And Then Some)

Published: May 31, 2012

Increasingly, Internet users are working "in the cloud" — creating and
sending data that isn't stored on local hard drives. It's easy to imagine our
emails and photos swirling around in cyberspace without a physical home — but
that's not really how it works. Those files are still stored somewhere, but
you can only find them if you know where to look.

In Tubes, journalist Andrew Blum goes on a journey inside the Internet's
physical infrastructure to uncover the buildings and compounds where our data
is stored and transmitted. Along the way, he documents the spaces where the
Internet first started, and the people who've been working to make the Web
what it is today.

Blum tells Fresh Air's Terry Gross that the Internet can be thought of as
three separate entities: data centers that store information, Internet
exchange points where networks meet to exchange data with each other, and
fiber-optic cables that connect all of the information traveling between
cities and continents.

Blum calls these fiber-optic cables, many of which traverse the ocean bottom,
the "most poetic places of the Internet."

"They're about the thickness of a garden hose, and they're filled with a
handful of strands of fiber-optic cable," he says. "And light goes in one end
of the ocean and out the other end of the ocean. And that light is
accelerated along its journey by repeaters that look like bluefin tuna
underwater."

The repeaters and the fiber-optic cables extend for thousands of miles below
the ocean's surface, along the same routes where other telecommunication
cables have been placed for decades. Blum, who watched one of the fiber-optic
cables emerge from the sea in Lisbon, says the process hasn't changed much
over the decades.

"I saw pictures from [a telegraph] museum in England where the pictures from
100 years earlier looked exactly the same," he says. "The Englishmen in their
hats were watching the laborers digging in the wet trench, pulling the cables
up. So the technology has changed but the culture hasn't changed, and the
points being connected haven't changed much."

In the States, many of the trans-Atlantic cables coming from Europe terminate
in an art deco-style office building at 60 Hudson St. in New York City. More
than 100 telecommunications companies have offices in the building, which
contains more than 70 million feet of cable wire.

"It's essentially a building-sized jumble of wires," says Blum. "It's been [a
very important building] for the telephone as well. So there's this mix of
very high-tech, high-capacity, brand-new machines, and then these old banks
of copper wires and switches. ... And the contrast is incredible. It's
amazing that we think of the Internet as a high-tech, sterile place, and this
place is the complete opposite."

In fact, Manhattan is full of buildings containing key parts of the Internet,
says Blum. In 2010, Google acquired 111 8th Ave., a block-long building in
Chelsea that sits almost directly on top of large bundles of fiber-optic
cables. The building is designed to allow tenants to connect to these
fiber-optic lines directly.

"It's that autonomy to connect — to do whatever they want and to make their
own decisions about how they're connecting to other networks that allows the
Internet to be both robust and cheap," says Blum.

Even though there's some potential risk involved, Blum believes the locations
of these data centers will never become secret.

"The Internet is all about one network connecting to another network. It's
the space in between that makes it come alive," he says. "And if you're
secret — if you try to hide where you are — then you essentially can't
function as a network on the Internet because nobody knows where you are. And
if you're in the business of selling your connection, then you have no
business at all if you won't tell anyone where it is."

Interview Highlights

On the late Alaska Sen. Ted Stevens saying the Internet is made up of "a
series of tubes."

"He's not wrong. The Internet is absolutely made of tubes. What else could it
be made of? It's many other things — these protocols and languages and
machines and a whole set of fantastically complex layers and layers of
computing power that feeds the Internet every day. But if you think of the
world in physical terms, and you're trying to be as reductive as possible and
try to understand what this is, there's no way around it — these are tubes.
And from the very first moment, from the basement of a building in Milwaukee
to Facebook's high-tech, brand-new data center, and along the ceiling and the
walls, are these steel conduits. But I know a tube when I see one."

On the makeup of the Internet

"The Internet has parts and pieces. We think of it as this singular whole,
and we use the word 'cloud' as a crutch to avoid thinking about the specific
parts; but, in fact, it is as singular as anything else."

On visiting Facebook's data center, located in central Oregon

"It was an interesting place to be because I realized that this was a place
that was connected to some of the most important moments of my friends'
lives. This was the place from which announcements of weddings and family
members' deaths and new jobs and new babies came from, so there was a real
disconnect between the sense of it being a building full of machines and the
emotional importance that it had on my life."

On replacing existing infrastructure

"Because fiber-optics cables are essentially glass tubes, you can replace the
flashlight on the end with a newer model, and that will transmit more data.
So you can keep the same actual fiber, replace the equipment on either end,
and suddenly you've increased the capacity by an order or even two orders of
magnitude. So that's a start. That will get us a few years down the road. But
then it's a constant gardening process. It's replacing the old ones and
putting in new ones."

On researching Google and Facebook

"Out of all of the companies I spoke with, Google was the one that shared the
least. Facebook, in contrast, was the opposite. They believed that this was
your data. You, the public, had a right to understand where it was and what
they did with it." [Copyright 2012 National Public Radio] TRANSCRIPT:

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. You know what makes your wireless
Internet connection possible? Wires, cables, zillions of them, underground
cables, undersea cables, buildings that have layers and layers of wires
interconnecting networks. Your wireless connection and the cloud, they have a
physical infrastructure, it's just out of our sight. And that physical
infrastructure is the subject of the new book "Tubes: A Journey to the Center
of the Internet" by my guest Andrew Blum. He's a correspondent for Wired.

The title of the book "Tubes" is a reference to former Alaska Senator Ted
Stevens' remark that the Internet was a series of tubes, a remark that was
widely mocked, but Blum discovered the infrastructure of the Internet does
have a lot of tubes.

Andrew Blum, welcome to FRESH AIR. So before we get into a more detailed
description of the physical structure of the Internet, just give us, like, an
aerial view you know, like an overview of what the Internet physically is.

ANDREW BLUM: Well, the Internet is a network of networks, and so those
networks, some begin at your house, and they sort of travel across the
country, and Facebook will run a global network, or Google will run a global
network, and then those networks have to connect to each other.

And where they often connect to each other are in places called Internet
exchange points, where there's a refrigerator-sized router belonging to one
network, and it's plugged into a refrigerator-sized router belonging to
another network, usually through a yellow fiber-optic cable.

GROSS: And then?

BLUM: Essentially any time you do anything online, you're essentially asking,
it's like a self-addressed, stamped envelope. You're saying: Please, send me
this Web page, you know, from where it is. And oh, by the way, I'm over here.
This is my address on the Internet. And that command goes off, passes almost
decidedly through these very specific list of Internet exchange points, and
then sends that sort of larger trove of data back to you.

GROSS: So let me ask you about the cloud. We think of the cloud, you know,
the image of it is, like, a cloud. It's something in space, you know, it's
not physical, it's just like your data, instead of being on your hard drive,
which could crash, or which your device could get stolen, you could lose it,
it's like stored in this cloud in cyberspace someplace where it's going to be
safe.

But the cloud isn't really a cloud. It's like a lot of machines. When you
store something on the, quote, "cloud," where is it really being stored?

BLUM: Well, it depends whose cloud. It's interesting. I mean, the Internet is
made of so many parts. I know my cloud happens to be stored in suburban
Virginia. That's where the service that I use for backup has a data center
not far from Dulles Airport. But your cloud might be in Oregon or in
Minneapolis or anywhere else.

And I think it's a really key point that the Internet has parts and pieces.
We think of it this singular hole, and we use the word cloud as a crutch to
kind of avoid thinking about the specific parts. But in fact, you know, it is
as singular as anything else.

GROSS: So if you're storing your email or your data on your hard drive on a
cloud, are you basically just storing it on somebody else's hard drive?

BLUM: You are. I mean, that's really what it means. You're exchanging the
hard drive on your desk for a much larger hard drive run by a company far
away. And it's interesting, you can very rarely find out where your cloud is.
If you look at these, you know, companies like Dropbox or SugarSync or even
iTunes, it's not transparent at all. There's no sense that we want to know
where this is. There's no sense that we should be allowed to know where it
is, and we're increasingly disconnected from it, although disconnected is
funny because obviously we're so connected to it.

GROSS: How well are the cloud hard drives backed up?

BLUM: Well, it depends again on sort of which cloud, right. So - but
hopefully they're backed up at least twice, ideally in two different
locations on different parts of the world or different parts of the country.
And, you know, hopefully the network engineers and the systems engineers who
built your cloud did it well enough that there's very little chance that all
of those would disappear at once.

GROSS: Are they vulnerable to things like earthquakes, floods, terrorism,
crashes?

BLUM: To a certain extent. They're most vulnerable to mechanical failure. I
mean, hard drives fail all the time, as some of us unfortunately know, and,
you know, earthquakes and floods are - the cloud itself isn't as vulnerable
to that. The cables that connect the Internet on a global scale are much more
vulnerable, particularly to underwater earthquakes. And terrorism is a sort
of different case. Most of the conversation about cybersecurity is about
virtual hacking, it's about people sort of, you know, logging in through
their keyboards to a computer and doing some harm to it. There's very little
discussion about physical harm to the network.

GROSS: Maybe there should be discussion of that.

BLUM: I think there should be definitely. I think - I mean, most of these
places are well-secured but not perfectly secured. And at the same time,
though, it would be a strange terrorist attack. You would be going after a
place that people don't realize exist. You would - most likely there would be
a backup. So your impact would be negligible.

The worst-case scenario is a sort of simultaneous destruction of these places
at a scale that's almost impossible to imagine being pulled off. It's almost
like saying, you know, we're going to take away all the airports in the U.S.,
they're just, they're too big, there are too many of them, they are as single
pieces too broad.

GROSS: Let's talk about the tubes under the sea, which is - the Internet has
a huge physical presence under the sea. Tell us about what's there.

BLUM: The undersea cables are the most - I feel are the most poetic pieces of
the Internet. They're about - usually about the thickness of a garden hose,
and they're filled with handful of strands of fiber-optic cable. And light
goes in one end and comes out the other, goes in one end of the ocean and
comes out the other end of the ocean. And that light is accelerated along its
very long journey, thousands of miles by these repeaters that look kind of
like blue fin tuna underwater.

And there's a system in there that essentially accelerates the photons,
almost like a water wheel, sort of goosing them along on their journey across
the ocean, not at the speed of light, at about two-thirds the speed of light.
And what amazes me about them is that you can sort of - you can - when you
look at one, you can conceive of it very easily.

It's this - you know, it's two inches thick, it looks like garden hose, it's
easy to think about, and then you think about the other dimension. You think
about the fact that this goes on for thousands of miles. You sort of think
about looking out into the ocean and imagining that it crosses and goes all
the way across, and that part is incredibly expansive and incredibly
difficult to understand.

But then you think of it - you think of the sort of ease with which we talk,
you know, talk on the phone across, you know, across oceans, or we send an
email to Europe or someplace, and you realize that we sort of touch these
things constantly.

GROSS: Maybe you can explain a little bit more about how fiber-optic lines
work because it just seems like magic to me. Maybe it's too technically
complex to explain, but how light can convey data through these tubes in the
ocean and not get all the data scrambled, just all that. I can't begin to
comprehend it.

BLUM: It's difficult to comprehend, and I confess I can't comprehend it fully
myself. There is a - I do understand the basics of it, and the most
interesting part is that you have many frequencies of light passing through a
single strand of fiber. Frequencies are colors of light.

So in a single strand of fiber, you might have a 10-gigabit-per-second wave,
a wave of light, that will transmit through pulses 10 gigabits per second of
data, you know, essentially 1,000 times more than your home Internet
connection might be through a single wave of light.

But then on top of that, through that same strand of fiber, there'll be
dozens, if not a hundred, other wavelengths of light, other colors of light
passing through that same fiber. So you have incredible, incredible capacity
through a single strand of fiber, and that's, particularly for the undersea
cables across the ocean, that's what allows them to carry stupendous amounts
of data through a single strand of fiber.

Then the cables will have perhaps four strands of fiber going in each
direction because each strand is - the light is only traveling one way across
the ocean, and there's a matching pair, where the light is traveling the
other way.

GROSS: Even though these are really high-tech, you know, tubes or cables,
whatever you want to call them, they still seem so old-fashioned in a way. I
mean, I always think oh, in the Internet era, everything is done through,
like satellites and just, like, through the air, and that's not true. Can you
just talk a little bit about the old-fashioned-ness of cables under the sea
in a satellite era?

BLUM: So with the cables, one of the most amazing things is that they still
connect the places that have always been port cities: Mombasa, Mumbai,
Singapore, Hong Kong, New York. And so that geography hasn't changed even
though the technology has changed.

And the way that they're laid hasn't changed very much at all. There's still
a ship that steams across the water laying, you know, laying one of these
cables off its stern. What's inside the cable has changed: It's gone from
copper to strands of fiber-optic cable. But the process of it is still the
same.

And even more remarkably, when it lands on the beach, it's exactly the same,
and even culturally it's exactly the same. Almost always there's an English
engineer ready to sort of receive it and directing the show, and almost
always there are sort of local, often immigrant, laborers who are sort of
doing the heavy lifting.

And I watched one of these cables come up on the shore in Lisbon, and that
was exactly what it was. And then I saw pictures in the archive of the
Porthcurno Telegraph Museum in England, which is sort of the granddaddy of
all cable landing sites, and the pictures from 100 years earlier looked
exactly the same.

These Englishmen in their hats, you know, watching these laborers sort of
digging in the wet trench, you know, pulling the cable up.

GROSS: Are the cables laid basically in the same places that the copper laid?

BLUM: They are, they are. I mean, for the most part they definitely are. I
mean across the Atlantic or around from Cornwall, from the sort of Land's
End, the western tip of England, around to Gibraltar, through the
Mediterranean, through the Suez. You know, these are the sort of classic
trade routes, and they haven't changed with the Internet. The Internet has
only traced them.

GROSS: So the fiber-optic cables that are at the bottom of the ocean, what
are they susceptible to? Like, there's fish there, there's possible
earthquakes. Like what are some of the problems cables could face?

BLUM: I think the things that usually get them are anchors being dragged by
ships and earthquakes. There's a famous case from 2006 in Lausanne, off the
coast of Taiwan, where a very powerful earthquake essentially severed, you
know, six out of the eight cables connecting, connecting essentially north
Asia and south Asia, and the Internet stopped.

You know, there was essentially no - you know, everything ground to a halt
until they were able to sort of route around it. And traditionally we think
about that happening sort of automatically, but in that case it was a - you
know, it was so dramatic that it was a matter of people unplugging the
connections on one of the end of the cable into a different cable.

And then of course the repair takes weeks because in order to repair these
underwater cables, you have to go out of the ship, through a grappling hook
over the side, lift the cable off the ocean floor, find the other end of the
cable, the broken side, stitch them back together and then drop them over.
And that's a very physical, a very sort of hand process that took weeks in
that case.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Blum. He's the author of
the new book "Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet." And he writes
for Wired and several other publications. Let's take a short break here, and
then we'll talk some more. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Andrew Blum, and his new book
is called "Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet." One of the places
that you visited in trying to understand the Internet, the physicality of the
Internet, was a data center in Milwaukee that's the central data center for
Milwaukee Internet communication. And it's in an office building built in
1901.

It was the former home of the Milwaukee Athletic Club, and just one of those
great paradoxes that, like, the high-tech Internet center in Milwaukee is in
this, like, old building. What's in it?

BLUM: Well, in the basement, the basement is filled with wires. You can't see
the ceiling because there are so many wires attached to the ceiling. And
those wires sort of attach to these steel boxes that sort of look like
coffins, that are kind of up, you know, up in the corner, where the wires
come in from underneath the street.

And then they travel up to this variety of offices upstairs that these
companies have colonized. And I was visiting with a guy who's an engineer for
an ISP, an Internet service provider, called Netwurx, a sort of small one in
southeastern Wisconsin. And this was the place that his 10,000 customers got
their Internet from.

And if you think of a company like Verizon or Comcast as having this huge
breadth and complexity, this was the opposite. He had a single machine in his
sort of dusty office with the windows thrown open to the Wisconsin winter to
keep the machines cool. And coming out of the machine were primarily two
yellow cables.

And one cable went to Cogent, which is a wholesale Internet provider, a sort
of global network that he gets his - that he connects his network to, and the
other cable went to Time Warner, their business division. But you can think
of it very simply as when - all of his customers connected to the Internet
through these two cables. One went one way; one went the other.

And I said: Then where does it go? And he said: It doesn't matter to me. Once
Cogent's got it, they're going to worry about it on a global scale. But it
really revealed to me that at every single - every single moment we spend
online is made of these forks in the road. And in aggregate, they're almost
impossible to conceive, but when you look at them individually, they're
incredibly simple: There's a yellow cable connecting one router to another
router.

GROSS: So there's another building I want to ask you to describe, and this is
one that's in New York. It's a former Western Union building that opened in
1930 and once carried high-gauge copper wire for telegraphs. What's the
building being used for now?

BLUM: That building is 60 Hudson Street, downtown in Tribeca, and that is the
building where the majority of transatlantic cables terminate. They land on
the beach, usually on Long Island or New Jersey, but then they connect right
back to 60 Hudson, and that's where they then connect to everybody else. So
it's essentially, it's a big - you know, the building is a sort of
building-size jumble of wires, you know, one network connecting to another
network.

GROSS: And you went there?

BLUM: I did go there, yeah. It's a - it's a - there's a lot of history, and
it's been very important for the telephone, as well. And so there's this mix
of these, you know, incredibly high-tech, brand new, very high-capacity
machines and then these old sort of huge banks of copper wires and switches,
you know, where - you know, that say like Deutsche Telecom, you know, that
are - you know, that's the place where Deutsche Telecom connected all of its
calls to the U.S.

And the contrast is incredible. It's amazing that, you know, we think of it
as this - the Internet, we expect it to be a sort of high-tech, sterile place
and some of its places are, but this place is the complete opposite. It's
this great sort of old art deco palace.

GROSS: And how did it become an Internet center?

BLUM: The stories about how these places become what they are always seem to
combine a sort of fact of geography - you know, Lower Manhattan is an
important place for communications, it always has been - and then often a
sort of charismatic salesman, you know, often somebody who convinced the
first network or the first two networks to come in and say hey, you guys
should both come, and when you get here, you should connect, and then other
people will come, too, and they'll connect.

And that was - you know, that was the case at 60 Hudson. The legend is that
the, you know, the reason the - with the deregulation of the
telecommunications industry, everybody needed to connect to AT&T, to Ma Bell.
And Ma Bell is just two blocks away. But the - in order to connect, they had
to get inside the building, and AT&T said no, we won't let you inside the
building, we're not obligated to.

And then an entrepreneur sort of realized that Western Union had maintained
control of their quote-unquote "network," which actually meant the clay
conduits underneath the street that connected the old AT&T building with the
old Western Union building. And he used that underground path, that, you
know, that actual, you know, this physical space to connect - to essentially
tether in 60 Hudson to 32 Avenue of the Americas.

And that allowed all of these new upstart telecommunications companies to
connect to the old AT&T, and over time, 60 Hudson, the upstarts, became
bigger or at least more important for the Internet and for international
telecommunications than the old AT&T building.

GROSS: So you live in New York. Is any of your data routed through this 60
Hudson Street building?

BLUM: Most certainly, yeah. No, I connect to the Internet through a cable
company called Cablevision, and there's a certain amount that they'll tell
you, and there's a certain amount you can see by sort of using different
programs that analyze the path of the data, and that's always public. It has
to be public because the bits have to know where to go.

You know, so I know, I can sort of read the tea leaves that Cablevision
connects to other networks at 60 Hudson Street, at another building a little
bit farther uptown called 111 Eighth Avenue that happens to be owned, as of
recently, by Google. And I can sort of very clearly imagine that when I send
an email to a colleague in London, that transmission is passing through 60
Hudson Street, going out to Long Island under the ocean, going through an
equivalent building in London called Telehouse and arriving at his desk.

GROSS: Now you mentioned Google recently bought a building in New York, and
you say it's one of the most important buildings on the Internet: Why?

BLUM: It is one of these buildings where more networks connect than anywhere
else. It's a sort of - it's an absolute key hub for the networks of the
Internet. And it also happened to be where Google began to put their New York
employees. And then a couple years ago, they bought the building outright for
$1.9 billion, the largest real estate transaction of the year in the U.S.

And this raised some eyebrows in the networking community because it was sort
of like American Airlines buying LaGuardia Airport. And - but the strange
thing was that Google said, well, you know, we just need it for the office
space. So I suppose it was sort of like American Airlines buying LaGuardia
Airport and saying, you know, actually we just need a place to park our
trucks.

But this is a key nodal point. This is a spot where networks need the sort of
ability to connect without any interference. And it's that sort of autonomy
to connect, that ability to do whatever they want, to sort of make their own
decisions about how they're connecting to other networks, that allows the
Internet to be both robust and to a certain extent cheap.

GROSS: So what function does this building serve in terms of Internet
traffic?

BLUM: It's another one of this very short list of the most important places
where networks meet. New York is rare that it has two or you might say three
of a list of perhaps a dozen buildings around the world that are the most
important meeting places for networks.

GROSS: Andrew Blum will be back in the second half of the show. His new book
is called "Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet." I'm Terry Gross,
and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with Andrew Blum. His new
book "Tubes" is about the physical infrastructure of the Internet - all the
wires and cables that make wireless Internet and the cloud possible. Earlier
in our interview, we talked about some of the buildings that housed the wires
connecting networks to other networks, serving as central hubs for the
Internet. And he described the location of some of these places.

Are we giving away secrets here by naming, you know, buildings, giving out
addresses that are central to the Internet? I mean, are they supposed to be
secret so that they're not going to be disrupted, there won't be terrorist
attacks on them, vandalism?

BLUM: No. It's interesting. They can't be secret, because if they were
secret, then the networks wouldn't know where to connect to each other.

GROSS: So people who you spoke to who run or own some of these Internet
centers, where the wires are, were happy to give you information about their
location and what they do and how they do it...

BLUM: Yeah...

GROSS: ...knowing that you were writing a book?

BLUM: I mean, for the most part, that was because all of the networks and all
of these buildings are privately owned. They're all for-profit companies. And
so one that I focus in particular, called Equinix, has a competitor called
TELEX. And as soon as Equinix heard that I was talking to TELEX, and TELEX
heard that I was talking to Equinix, they wanted to make sure that I knew and
everybody knew that, in fact, their building was more important. And if you
asked them, you know, what's the most important building on the Internet,
they'll say oh, no. Our building is the most important building on the
Internet. That's why you should come and connect your network to other
networks inside our building. So, in some ways, it was the opposite.
Everybody had something to sell. Everybody was eager to talk about, you know,
how their place was the most important.

GROSS: So the two companies that you just mentioned, Equinix and TELEX, who
think that they're - that they each are the most important centers on the
Internet, what they do is connect networks to each other?

BLUM: What they do is, essentially, provide the space. They provide the
building, the physical place where you can rent a little piece of real estate
- usually a cage, actually a cage, like, you know, with steel walls - and
they'll sell you some power. And they'll make sure the building is secure.
And then they'll charge you to run a cable from your cage to someone else's
cage, called a cross-connect. So there will be a monthly rent on that cable.
And that's, so they make the money on the connection, and then they make the
money on the power. They make money on the rent. And there's a real premium
to be in these most important places.

But if you're a network, you know, that premium might be worth it, because
you want to be able to connect to as many people as easily as possible, as
efficiently as possible, you know, by not having to lease a long-distance
communications line, like we're talking on now, but just being able to string
a single cable across the room or across the building.

GROSS: So the Internet works, like, magically right now. I mean, it works
like so well most of the time, assuming your cable company is in good shape.

(LAUGHTER)

BLUM: Mm-hmm.

GROSS: But, you know, I can't help but wonder: What happens in 10 years, 20
years, 30 years when these cables get old and maybe need to be replaced, or
the technology gets improved and they need to be upgraded? There's just,
like, so many wires around the world now, so many cables under the ocean. I
mean, how do you deal with that? It seems like it's much more complex than,
say, telephone connections used to be.

BLUM: Yeah. Well, one of the amazing things about the fiber optic cables is
that because they're essentially these glass tubes, you can replace the
flashlight on the end with a newer model, and that will transmit more data.
So you can keep the same actual fiber, replace the equipment on either end,
and suddenly you've increased the capacity, you know, by an order or even two
orders of magnitude. So that's a start. That will get us a few years down the
road. But that's a sort of constant gardening process. You know, it's
constantly, you know, replacing the old ones and putting in new ones.

And these old buildings, you know, now that they've been active for a decade
or so, one guy described it as being like an ice core. You know, if you drill
down, you see, you know, networks from 10 years ago. The new ones are just
layered on top. The new connections are on top, and the old ones are deep
beneath, and there's no way to remove them.

There's a joke that the building in London called Telehouse, that there's a
fortune to be made in copper mining, you know, because if somebody could
figure out how to get all these copper cables out of this old building, then
they would be rich. You know, there's all this detritus of the last
generation of networks only, you know, 10-12 years ago.

GROSS: So your book is called "Tubes," and it's about, like, the physical
part of the Internet, the wires, the cables, the - and you use the word tubes
a lot, you know, in the book.

BLUM: Yeah.

GROSS: For instance, the cables under the ocean, you describe as tubes. So in
2006, Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska described the Internet as a series of
tubes, and he got mocked so badly for that. And it really seemed like, the
way he described it, he had no idea what he was talking about. He had no idea
what the Internet is. Would you go so far as to defend him?

BLUM: I would. Absolutely.

(LAUGHTER)

BLUM: I mean we - it was a - he's certainly not wrong. You know, the Internet
is absolutely made of tubes. You know, what else could it be made of? It's
many other things. There's, you know, there's these protocols and, you know,
languages and, you know, machines. You know, there's a whole sort of
fantastically complex, you know, layers and layers and layers of computing
power that obviously feeds the Internet every day.

But if you think of the world in physical terms, you know, if you try to be
as reductive as possible and trying to understand what, you know, what this
is, there's no way around it. You know, these are, you know, these are tubes.
And from the very first moment, from the time that I, you know, from the
basement in that building in Milwaukee, you know, through Facebook's sort of
high-tech brand-new data center, you walk through these buildings, and in the
ceilings and along the walls are these steel conduits. We call them conduits,
but I know a tube when I see one.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: OK. Well, Andrew Blum, thank you so much for explaining a lot about
the Internet. I appreciate it.

BLUM: Thanks for having me.

GROSS: Andrew Blum is the author of "Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the
Internet."

Coming up, our critic-at-large, John Powers, tells us about the films he saw
this month at the Cannes Film Festival. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript
provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.


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