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The Internet: Why not now?

By: Scott Bradner

Last month I wrote about the apparently sudden popularity of the Internet, at least among the press corps. Well, the recognition of the Internet is big and getting bigger. The Internet made the front page of today's Sunday New York Times "Week in Review" section and I just saw an advertisement on a local Boston TV station (WCVB) telling the viewers how to send email to the station. (They didn't get it quite right though, they called it the "Internet system" as if it were a computer, but it's the thought, and connectivity, that counts.)

Perhaps in spite of this attention, the actual number of connections to the Internet continues to grow at a rate that would be the envy of any marketer. In addition, many more organizations and people are getting their feet wet in the Internet business by obtaining accounts on the growing number of systems that offer user accounts with Internet access. Examples of this type of users are WCVB which uses "America on Line" for it's access and this newspaper which uses "Software Tool & Die."

With all of this growth, however there is one type of connection that is almost entirely absent. The Internet is not seen as a way to connect branches of an organization together. Many companies have their own telephone PBXs but buy standard long distance service from one of the carriers rather than lease point to point lines between the PBXs in different branches. These same companies do lease their own connections when they want to connect the LANs in these same branches.

Why should they roll their own, since in most cases connecting each branch to the Internet and communicating through the common fabric would yield a less expensive and often higher speed connection?

There seem to be two basic reasons, and these are the same reasons that some companies opt for the service bureau rather than get their own Internet connection. The Internet is not seen as secure enough or reliable enough for intra-company use. (There are also other reasons that one might use a service bureau ,such as cost and ease of operations.)

The thought that packets, which might contain company secrets or user lognames and passwords, could wander throughout a shared infrastructure where they might be monitored can, and should, make the corporate data security person feel a bit queasy. Much of this unease is a bum rap. It is actually easier to tap a dedicated data link than to separate out the traffic for a particular site from a shared backbone. But there is more than a germ of reality to the concern. Any connection to a shared data service does open opportunities for any who might wish to violate the sanctity of the corporate LAN. While it should be noted that most of the cases of this type of violation are by users with legitimate access to the local network, the issue of security is one that providers of Internet service must address a bit better than has generally been done.

The issue of reliability seems to be one more of understanding and careful shopping than reality. The backbone of almost all of the Internet service providers is designed in the form of a mesh with redundant connections for reliability. The TCP/IP routing protocols in use in these networks will automatically reroute around failed links. There are two single points of failure in many of these providers: the link to the customer, and the link to the rest of the Internet. Experience has shown that line failure is much more common than equipment failure. Since the corporation and the service provider would both use the same provider for that link, it is unlikely that the repair time for the failed link would be different. Since it is true that some Internet providers have a better response record than others, any prospective customer should ask for references.

There are a number of other reasons that can be mentioned as to why a company would build their own network. One common reason is that the Internet does not provide for the transport of the protocols which are becoming prevalent in the corporate network and, of course there is the ever present "mother please, I'd rather do it myself".

With the advent of more systems that support TCP/IP, (Novell for example is working on providing their client/server connection over TCP/IP as well as IPX and IBM is doing the same for LU6.2 APPC connections), and a better understanding of the reliability issue, security is left as the main roadblock to the logical way of connecting branch offices together. Hopefully the service providers will address this issue in a way that companies find believable.

Disclaimer of the month id from Lennart Regebro: "Any Opinion expressed above is (c) Rent-An-Opinion(tm). It is not an Opinion of either Scott Bradner or Harvard University"