The evil that lurks in the intelligent network

The spectre looming over the convergence of Web 2.0 and enterprise SOA is a future in which network operators control the intelligence in the network.

The nightmare scenario that flows from the convergence of Web 2.0 with enterprise SOA (the "Global SOA"?) is that network providers regain their monopoly control of our access. Network equipment vendors are already eager to sell them the kit to do this. Here's a PR pitch from Solace Systems, a vendor that markets XML appliances to network operators (my emphasis added):

"As the need for system interoperability increases, XML- and SOA-enabled infrastructure becomes the standard for next-generation networks. The idea that the Internet can become a massive SOA infrastructure on-demand is becoming a reality."

Writing last month on The Register about Cisco's AON product line, which offers similar capabilities, Tom Welsh outlined the dark side of this proposition (again, with my emphasis added):

"... it’s by no means clear that the rest of us should uncritically welcome 'putting intelligence into the network' ... there is a downside to the AON dream. At first glance, three serious issues raise their heads: security, unfair competition, and the potential demise of the internet as a content-neutral medium ... Before we know it, we could be back in the AOL/Compuserve universe – paying extra for every piece of information and every 'special' service."

It's thoughts like these (along with Doc Searls' November essay about Saving the Net: How to Keep the Carriers from Flushing the Net Down the Tubes) that make me nervous when people start talking about Web 2.0 and the on-demand space in terms of a utility model like power or water. As Dan Farber pointed out early last year, those utility markets have transparent pricing, whereas "an industry standard definition of CPU per hour usage doesn't exist. There is no equivalent to kilowatt hours." ComputerWorld's Mark Hall recently spelt out the implications of that rather more forcefully (my emphasis added):

"For utility computing to fulfill its promise, there has to be a standard pricing model that all users can apply to their operations. Until then, on-demand computing will be just another complex, proprietary pricing strategy vendors use to keep you from fairly and accurately comparing one service to another."

This is the spectre of evil that looms over the convergence of Web 2.0 and enterprise SOA — a future in which network operators control the intelligence in the network, giving them the power to set proprietary tariffs not only for their own utility services but also for any rivals you might wish to subscribe to over their network.

I promised yesterday, when I asked Who will rule Web 3.0?, to explore some examples of "either fragmentation or concentration of economic opportunity and power." Tomorrow I will move on to examine a happier, more fragmented potential landscape. But it's one we won't be free to enjoy unless we maintain the clear and absolute separation of network access and networked functionality that the Web enjoys today.

As soon as my access provider can start dictating which services I can and cannot use and how much I pay for them, every benefit I expect to gain from Web 2.0 and service-oriented architectures is negated. Bear that in mind the next time some network provider offers you a tempting bundle of network access and applications. There's a catch. Oh boy, is there a catch.

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