Road Rage on the Internet

New products and services can help you calculate whether the shortest distance between two points is really the best route for your data.

The Internet is broken. Successful businesses require predictable systems and reliable performance. Unfortunately, the Internet provides neither.

The very nature of business thrives on predictability, and not just in a purely technical sense. For example, we need to predict the demand for our products and services and adjust supply accordingly.

Though not designed or built for serious business, the Internet is a critical tool for many business applications—from e-mail to supply chain management (SCM), sales force automation (SFA) to customer relationship management (CRM)—though that was never its intended purpose. With roots in government and academia (specifically, the ARPANet project at the Department of Defense), the Internet's goal was to preserve command and communication in the event of nuclear war—to minimize single points of failure. It's done a magnificent job at that, as the Internet as a whole has yet to go down, but there's no guarantee of performance and reliability for point-to-point communications.

Many of us don't understand that data packets may take a wild and unpredictable ride from your system to their destination. Recently, thinking was down, I used a program called TraceRoute (available on all platforms), which displays the hops or networks crossed and the amount of time each hop takes, and I discovered that my packets never even left my ISP's network. This "cloud"—the unknown portion of the Internet where our packets travel, and over which we have no control—is where we're bound to encounter congestion and delay. For many of us, it's a dark cloud that won't go away.

The most common and conventional method for dealing with the unpredictable nature of the Internet is to use multiple Internet Service Providers (ISPs). When one service provider fails, the hope is that the second (or third or fourth) is available. The technical term used to implement this method is multihoming, which finds the "best" route using the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP) at the router.

BGP, around since 1989, is included in most network gear today. BGP is smart, but not super-smart. It's a protocol for exchanging routing information between systems. The routing table contains a list of known routers, addresses, and a cost metric. In simplest terms, BGP determines the "best" route based on the "shortest path." Unfortunately, the shortest path may not always be the quickest path. It's very possible that traveling longer distances could yield better and faster paths, because your packets could avoid networks with congestion and delays. BGP doesn't account for performance and provides unimpressive support for choosing the route based on cost.

Route Tracing Solutions

Internap Network Services Corp., Seattle, Wash.,

netVmg Inc., San Jose, Calif.,

Network Physics, Mountain View, Calif.,

Route Science, San Mateo, Calif.,

Sockeye Networks, Waltham, Mass.,

New products and services, including RouteScience, netVmg, Network Physics, Sockeye, and Internap (see "Route Tracing Solutions"), offer much promise over conventional methods for dealing with the poor predictability and performance of the Internet. Many use equipment installed alongside your existing infrastructure, while services like those from Internap act more like a virtual service provider and maintain connections to many popular carriers. While the product-based solutions are more prevalent, it's useful to have service-oriented solutions, too, especially if your company favors outsourcing.

Both hardware and service solutions use "intelligent routing" based on monitoring. They measure real-time, end-to-end path performance and determine the best path to use based on performance and cost metrics. In a sense, many of these solutions provide the opportunity to prioritize traffic demands by both performance and cost.

The best solutions will be those that work proactively and non-obtrusively. They'll be short-lived if their intelligence contributes to the congestion and delay.

Besides optimizing Internet routing, these solutions may give you the lead you need in terms of measuring whether or not your service provider is meeting the SLA (Service Level Agreement) and QOS (Quality of Service) established with your organization. It's a nice little extra when negotiating the contracts or bills!

If BGP doesn't cut the mustard, take a close look at these solutions. There are plenty to choose from and I imagine that Cisco has all of them on its shopping list. Acquisition of any of them by a large networking company seems like a natural move to me.

About the Author

Laura Wonnacott is VP of Business and Technology Development for Aguirre International, and a California State University system instructor.