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Larry's Router Rant

Internet pioneer Larry Roberts is back with a diatribe on the shortcomings of current IP routing technology

October 26, 2007

3 Min Read
Larry's Router Rant

Larry Roberts, one of the "Fathers of the Internet," is at it again. The Internet could collapse, he writes on Internet Evolution, because of the inability of routers to keep up with the growth of bandwidth consumption.

Now, we've heard these Internet Apocalypse stories before. But this latest one comes with a different spin. It's economic, mostly, Roberts says. Routing costs aren't descending rapidly enough to keep up with the growth of bandwidth. In other words, at some point soon, moving packets will become a massively unprofitable enterprise.

The first question you have to ask when you hear the latest "Internet Collapse" scenario is: What's he selling? Of course, Larry's diatribe transitions smoothly into a big fat sales pitch for his latest flow-based routing company, Anagran Inc.

Also, keep in mind, this is not the first time Roberts has made the flow pitch. After all, he chewed through about a quarter of a billion in investor capital in the pursuit of the same holy grail at Caspian Networks. Didn't work.

But Roberts does have a point. Innovation in routing technology appears to have stagnated. We're still waiting for something dramatic, such as, say, an optical router. What's the best blockbuster innovation to come from the routing world? As Roberts points out, most routers are relying on the increased speed of chipsets to improve calculation power to do the same thing they've been doing for decades: routing packets. Most adjustments to the technology, whether it be something like DiffServ or Multiprotocol Label Switching (MPLS), appear to be incremental in nature. Have we really made any huge leaps forward in the networking paradigm since Ethernet and Internet Protocol (IP) were first invented? That was more than 30 years ago!

The mistake that Roberts is making is assuming that there won't be any new innovation, or that his particular innovation is the answer. You would think that if flow-based routing were the answer, somebody at AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) or NTT Communications Corp. (NYSE: NTT) would have caught on by now.

I believe that carriers are actually moving in the opposite direction: away from routing. They are looking to engineer more circuits on their networks at the cheaper Layer 2 layer, with carrier-class Ethernet and optical technology, and they want to push routing further out to the edge.

Larry Dennison, the CTO of Avici Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: AVCI; Frankfurt: BVC7), which recently exited the routing business, told me that large carrier customers he has been speaking with (among them, AT&T) have been asking for circuit-based technology in the core, not packet-based technology. "They don't want to open up complexity," he said. "They need a mechanism that's not general IP." And, he noted, going with Layer 2 is just plain cheaper.

I don't think Roberts is necessarily wrong about the problem – it just seems as if he's being unduly pessimistic and narrow-minded about the solution. If the situation is indeed as dire as he says, the technology community is likely to engineer a solution. What is it? Well, we don't know yet – and that's the point.

In Nassim Nicholas Taleb's book, The Black Swan: The Impact of the Highly Improbable, he points out that most earth-shaking technological innovations – such as electricity, nuclear power, and the personal computer – came in a completely unexpected fashion. Not even the scientific community anticipated them.

I think this is how the next wave of Internet switching/routing/moving technology will unfold: out of the blue. When it does come, it will likely not involve an incremental improvement to the router. It will be a huge paradigm shift. It will mean that routers are being replaced with something completely different.

— R. Scott Raynovich, Editor in Chief, Light Reading

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