The following text is copyright 1996 by Network World, permission is hearby given for reproduction, as long as attribution is given and this notice is included.

the Net through doom colored glasses

The sky is not about to fall. One of the most common reactions in the press and, to some degree, the technical community to Bob Metcalfe's apparent predictions of the immediate collapse of the Internet has been to treat him as a Chicken Little--running around in circles while loudly lamenting the end of civilization as we know it.

It is a nice simple concept, easy for the press and public to understand---the Internet will be toast by Tuesday (or was that Thursday). But there are two things wrong with the simple story. First, it is effectively impossible for the global Internet to fail in a catastrophic way. Second, Bob talked about problems that might potentially effect large numbers of users, not the same thing as systemic collapse.

The Internet consists of hundreds of thousands of interconnected networks, each under its own management. Most of these networks are within end user organizations and small Internet service providers (ISPs) (there are thousands of small ISPs). In addition, there are a few dozen large ISPs, each with a service area spanning geographic regions and in some cases, national borders. This structure is a more richly endowed version of the structure of the global telephone network. Note that with the global trend towards telecommunications deregulation the structure of the global telephone network is getting to look more like the fragmented Internet does.

Is a systemic collapse of such a system possible? Some pundits try to claim that it is--they come up with nightmare scenarios where all the ISPs get routing updates that their routers see as some form of death pill, or all of the ISP routers get simultaneously sabotaged by some evil force. Some even point to the meltdown of the inter-telephone switch signaling protocols a few years back. Is systemic collapse probable? No. The Internet is far too diverse these days.

I do have to agree with Bob that there will continue be vendor and facility specific outages. As some of the vendors continue to expand their customer bases the effect of outages will grow (megalapses if you will). But how do these outages compare with the outages experienced by other service providers? A few months ago a major failure of the power grid left most of the western U.S. trying to communicate by candlelight, and on an average day, more than 30,000 people in the U.S. are without telephone service for an average of 5 hours each. (see These are quite real problems and the problems on the Net are no less real.

One of the biggest problems is that many of the existing ISPs are undercapitalized or do not have adequately trained staff. I do expect to see episodic overloads and slow or unreliable service within such vendors. But just as I changed my telephone long distance provider when I had trouble getting calls through because of overloaded lines, I would expect that users should change their ISP if they are getting poor quality service. The Net might not collapse but if your part of the Net does it is hard to tell the difference.

What I find far more troubling than Bob's actual message is the way that it has been simplified and magnified by many in the press who seized on the possibility of collapse. I fear that this is not because of the widely believed desire on the part of the press to create controversy but instead comes from the fact that too few in the press understand the technology they are reporting on. If it all seems chaotic and magical, then it is easy to think that the magic may end.

disclaimer: Harvard has been on the Internet since before we knew it was the Internet and has seen quite a range of service qualities over the years but the above are my own opinions.