Come back to some strange tales. The Internet went down, say friends, on Sunday. I wander onto the Net and search for cries of pain. I find them. To cut a long story short, it turns out that a bug in router firmware responded badly to a stream of bad packets that hit UUNET, and that the UUNET backbone turned into a monster. Other networks hurriedly disconnected, and it took around five hours to repair the damage.
If you look at UUNET's pages, you find lots and lots of confident copy saying how bomb-proof its network is. Well, it isn't. And this sort of problem could hit anyone - and next time, it could last longer.
We assume the Internet is safe and reliable, if not as good as it will be. It's important to remember it's not intrinsically reliable at all, and one day it might go away for quite a long time.
But what can we use as a backup?
Shooting the breeze with Peter Judge, Morris-dancing, hirsute and terribly good-eggish editor of the Network section of IT Week, we come up with a glorious plan. Pinging for people. I'll design and build a set of tiny radio-frequency tags that come with unique IDs, together with a cheap scanner that picks them up and routes the info to the Net. With these everywhere, you'll be able to find where your car keys are -- from anywhere in the world! Check up on your girlfriend or boyfriend! Never lose your dog again! Never lose anything again!
We develop the idea. Slap one on a book and leave it in a second-hand shop, and you can tell when its been bought and, once its been taken home, who's bought it. Pick the implications out of that one for privacy and marketing potential. Weave them into banknotes. Have manufacturer-specific ones, so you can tell how many Ford Kas or pink wooly jumpers are in a particular area. It would be a world in which nothing could be stolen, or kept secret. And it's not a difficult technology.
Should we build a prototype? Or should I just write a SF novel about it?
IBM unveils ‘the biggest disk in the world' (which I misread. I stop laughing about a minute later), 25 gigabytes of storage, mate. I do some calculations, and realise that this is Enough. I can do my video editing. I can store vast chunks of data dragged from the Net. I can build huge models of weather systems. I can record Radios 1,3 and 4 all day and work out what I want to listen to when I get home. This sort of technology can - and will - change the way we think about our everyday information. It's very exciting, and I want one.
But what can we use as a backup?
What a bizarre day. I head off into town to see SilkRoad, an optical data communications company that is making some extraordinary claims for its technologies. Most very high speed optical systems use banks of lasers tuned to different frequencies shining down a fibre; this way, you can stack up tens of gigabit links to make a terabit (a million megabits) connection. This is remarkable, but very expensive and rather cumbersome. SilkRoad (infelicitously spelled SilkToad in one press report, which has stuck inside IT Week as the preferred name for the company) says it can do all this and more with one single laser on one single frequency. If right, it's a major story.
The trouble is, I can't make head nor tail of the reports I read. So I'm very much looking forward to meeting the people themselves and digging down into the photonic nitty-gritty. I'm no fibre expert, but most of the interesting stuff tends to be not too different to radio at heart and I'll soak that up until it Hertz.
An hour and a half later, and I stagger bleary-eyed out onto the pavement having tried very hard not to drown under a torrent of concepts. But then, what can a man do when the opening shot from the company's representative is a rattling exposition of non-zero tau solutions to Maxwell's equations? If you've never done a physics or electronics degree, you probably won't have heard of these - they're the fundamental building block of electromagnetism but having them thrown at me here is like having a hard disk manufacturer starting his spiel with a discussion of quantum chromodynamics and its relation to magnetic moments. Not useful. The rest isn't much better - block diagrams that almost, but not quite, make sense; tales of non-synchronised clocks and single sidebands; non-spreading pulses; beamsplitters from Radio Shack. It just doesn't gel. I know this stuff. Why isn't it making sense?
I go and talk to some independent optical datacomms specialists, who come back with the same story. "I've been covering the field for twenty years", said one, "and I can't understand a word of it. Nobody I've talked to claims to understand it either". But our man from SilkRoad had told me that the Wall Street analysts were bowled over by the technology, that telcos were clamouring to invest, that competitors were aghast. I suppose it's all under NDA, but the optical datacomms community is small and chattery and doesn't go much on secrets. As I said, bizarre.
And there the story must wait for me to get my paws on some promised technical documentation. It's either a mammoth breakthrough or... I don't know how to finish that sentence. When I do, I'll get back to you.
It's DSL day. Hold on, let me say that again. IT'S DSL DAY! The day when BT comes in to install my very own, very personal 2 megabit/s Internet connection. Whap! Here's a courier at the door, clutching a large box. I sign for it, but before I can drag it upstairs, whap! Here's a nice engineer clutching a test meter! Blimey.
I sit and natter while he bolts boxes to the wall. One splitter, check. One ADSL modem, check. One ATM router, cunningly badged as a BT product but with no other identification, check. An hour later, it's all up and running. The exchange can ping the router, the router and the modem are cheerfully sprinkled with green flashing lights (which go orange if I pull leads out, so that's all right), and I'm ready to go. Whoo-woooooh!
Only I'm not. As part of the rather convoluted trial scheme, I now have to get an Ethernet card and some ‘security software' fitted to my PC by - gulp - PC World. Or, in other words, Mastercare. And that can't happen for another three days... so I'm going to be stuck staring longingly at a 10-baseT socket all weekend, just imagining the packets patiently queuing there.
So, I get bored. So, I pull apart the router. So, I discover it's a Flowpoint 2025 with oodles of fun options. So I suddenly think that if I actually play with any of them, BT will be mad at me and I really want to keep this trial. So I put it back together again and pretend I didn't do it.
I shall also resist the temptation to just plug in an Ethernet card myself and see what happens, this weekend. Honest.
But it's hard to wait...