October 09, 2007

Networking Re-Pondered at 37,000 feet

Once again I find myself the resident of seat 30C (power equipped) in a nearly full pressured tin can aka a Boeing 767-200 being flown courtesy of American Airlines. It is no surprise anymore that I spend more of my life at 37,000 feet, with 10% humidity, and insufficient oxygen to support normal cognitive thought than most people would consider tolerable. So, while taking a break from doing “real work”, I plug in my trusty iPod and Bose Noise cancelling headphones and escape in the vast never lands of my electronic palace (it is much larger than the 17.2 inch wide, 32 inch pitch seat AA has provided). Although I ponder the chord changes and melodic composition of a lot of Hard Bop and other Jazz while doing time on aircraft, this time I was pulled into something different.

I was thinking, it was too bad I don’t have the ill fated Boeing Connexion on board, as half way through a flight, I always discover the document, file, or website I need to access but don’t have at my disposal. Worse, when I do have what I need, I have managed to fill up my paltry disk drive with enough stuff that I am inviting the wrath of the fragmented paging file and inevitable system meltdown. It seems that I can no longer operate for very long without being connected, even in a faux fashion (with offline files, briefcases, and what not). This started my exhausted mind wondering through all the meanings/contexts that networking has come to define.

Today there is much discussion about social networking, as epitomized by FaceBook (hipsters) and LinkedIn (us stuffy professional types). This notion of networking is of course, the modern equivalent of the Good Ol’ Boy network of those "in the know" and "should be known". Then there is networking as epitomized by Cisco, well OK, all of us, aka the Internet. The Internet is one of my fondest technological pursuits, and I remind myseld that several of the services on it could prove real handy mid-air. If I was online, I could get to those missing files, grab them out of my backup Gmail box, or better yet get them from a Mozy backup (one of the neat tricks now up EMC's burgeoning sleeve) and I would be back on track. Of course, my dream (or worst nightmare) come true is not having to lug all of my context around with me (sorry not a thin client pitch this time) but having access to my files from anywhere anytime. Then again, maybe I am pitching a thin client thought, perhaps thin enough to fit into seat 30C.

Just having this mental exercise about connectivity shows how far along networking and the expectations of it has come. In my early commercial internet days, 28.8k dial up was fast, a 56k-leased line was expensive, and being able to attach a file to an email was a snazzy affair. But this is modern history compared with my initial experiences of the ARPANet at 110 baud, or 300 on a good day. That network was a bit more stoic than the current one, however, there was an even more fascinating network underlying it that few thought of, namely the PSTN, or telephone network.

Being a closet Phone Phreak myself, I have to admit to spending many an idle hour pondering just how far can one could make a connection, either through PSTN or in conjunction with the ARPANet. The great revelation that I could type a character and within only 1 or 2 seconds have it echo back in full duplex from the UK and thus carry on a conversation in the stone age equivalent of IM for the price of a local phone call was fascinating. I knew at that time (it was 1977) that a world whereby communications interconnecting computers (OK I was thinking terminals and teletypes) was going to happen and become the norm, if for no other reason than the avoid Ma Bell’s long distance tariffs. Yes, some of us had cracked the Sprint and Ralston Purina private long distance networks, but that kind of five finger calling did not hold the same commercial appeal as the alternative computing message network accessed for the price of a local call.

With network speeds slow enough you could almost watch the electrons move, these networks would obviously have to change to support what we now take for granted, but the mystery, and mechanical actions of connectivity were fascinating. The assumptions that we today make about connectivity, at work, home, or mobile seem so normal, and yet were beyond science fiction not all that long ago. Egad, I was beginning to be humbled by my lack of connectivity in good ol' 30C.

At this point, I took umbrage in my disconnected state and turned back to the iPod. Amongst the many CDs and podcasts was a directory of special recordings, known as Phone Trips. I dialed in (pun intended) and started to listen to Evan Doorbell narrate some of his trips through 1XB, 5XB, and 1ESS central offices, stacking tandems, and reliving the general exploration of the greatest network in the 1970s, AT&T’s long lines. Odd as it may seem, (yes, I admitted I was a phreak) my frustration about not having perpetual connectivity began to wane, and I found myself reconnecting with the sense of adventure that networks once held for me. This was perhaps the best-connected network feeling I have had in some time -- and I was completely offline.

With arguably good reason, pondering my past is an affair best left to the experts. Nevertheless, it was good to remember some of the special almost bizarre excitement that networks once held, and to reconnect with the potential that networks have for all of us, even if that excitement has “matured” into expectation and sense of taking it all for granted. With this in mind, the Internet, Web 2.0. VoIP, zillion bits per second LANs and WANs, all are part of one of the most significant behavioral modification of recent times. Whenever, we are quick to minimize the value prop of the latest and greatest Internet service, we need to remember the quaint beginning of networks, and look just how far they came and how fast.

Nevertheless, for the remainder of this flight, I will delve into one of my favorite, organic, purely analog networks, the dynamic interconnected nodes of the Horace Silver Quintet. The workload varies, has high customer facing value, and makes immense use of discrete neurological networks, both local and remote, and you never quite know what to expect. Grid processing at its best. It's time for this camper to nod off...