Do you really need your own T-1?

A recent article in the NY Times "Home" section highlighted those apartment buildings in the city that provide high-speed Internet access via a shared T-1 line. Although the Grey Lady had a hard time finding enough people actually using their built-in net connection, it is significant nonetheless when the People Who Wear Black have discovered the net.

It seems everyone has gotta have a T-1 connection to the net these days. Sure, it is nice to have graphics-rich web pages pop out at you without having to wait, and those megabyte downloads are painful at even 28.8 modem speeds. But do you really need a T-1? Given that there are plenty of places on the planet where an entire nation of surfers shares a T-1, why do we have to consume all that bandwidth?

A friend who is a VP at a major computer company recently remarked how they found PointCast filled up about 15 percent of their T-1 line. With a 200-person company, that seemed to me to be a point of concern, until he mentioned that they rarely max out the capacity of their T-1. The extra traffic generated by the PointCast screen saver isn't worth worrying about, he said.

So having all that bandwidth can be cost-effective. High- speed lines can be had for several hundreds of dollars per month in most major cities. They don't take long to order or install, and we have a wide (but still perplexing) choice of equipment suppliers, installers, and configurations. But realize our fortune of living in the land of Ma Bell: very little of this paragraph is true for many countries, even those that would be considered in our economic league.

Why do I have this incredible sense of déjà vu, bringing me back to my days in the energy conservation movement, thinking about the parallels with wasting non-renewable resources? Well, I don't think that running PointCast is as bad as taking a Sunday drive to burn some fossil fuels, at least not yet. But I still believe in saving those packets whenever possible, just as I still try to buy energy-efficient appliances.

The problem is that the original design of the Internet is wrong-headed and encourages American bandwidth waste. Just like most modern airline routes, the net uses a few hubs and many spokes. The hubs were located at educational research centers around the US, originally to support the Defense Department network. Even with all the changes in the Internet, this topology hasn't changed much. Indeed, it was often easier for people to connect to US networks - even if both the source and the destination were in two different foreign lands. This is just like trying to fly between two small cities in Tennessee: often the only route is to connect in Atlanta and hope you don't have to still run miles between your gates.

And like DFW and Hartsfield, hubs can get awfully crowded at peak times and even worse when problems happen, such as broadcast storms, unexpected traffic, or a misdirected backhoe in New Jersey.

All that a T-1 does (or any other high-speed Internet pipeline) is move the bottleneck from your own connection to somewhere else on the Internet. If you are trying to get through the hubs at their busiest times, you'll loose some of the benefit of your personal T-1. If you are trying to get connected to a popular server, or if your server suddenly becomes popular, then the T-1 doesn't really help. Indeed, you can't always assume that you'll have a full 1.5 megs of bandwidth available to your desktop: congestion and other Internet outages will cut the effective throughput down considerably.

Honestly, my ISDN line (at about four percent the capacity of an overall T-1) has come in handy on those long lonely downloads, but for the most part its real benefit is in the quick call setup times. When surfing the web, I almost never have enough demand to bring up my second data channel.

That's just me using the entire line. However, what about if you have an office full of people banging away at their PCs? Here's a tip, care of the folks at Aventail: try using a proxy server to cache frequently-visited pages. Aventail (granted they sell the stuff) manages to support their entire office of some 20 or so people sharing the same 56 k line, for both inbound and outbound traffic. But the myth of the T-1 persists.

Meanwhile, cable modems are slowly coming of age, xDSL has become another Alice in Bell-land game of mirrors, US Robotics is hawking Hawking and not much else, and the rest of us can finally almost use ISDN - just as the Bells raise prices. T-1s are looking better and better. If only I could order one that would be solar-powered, my conscience would be clear.

N.B. A few things I didn't think about when I wrote the above: when T-1s come to apartment buildings, people can create more content from their homes. Read this response from Andrew Cohill of Blacksburg Electronic Village. And don't confuse bandwidth with latency, as Stuart Cheshire reminds us in Adam Engst's TidBITS newsletter.

Sitekeeping, self-promotions and situations wanted dep't

My biggest project this year has just gone up at CMP's Techweb web site. Called the Intranet Construction Site, there are over three dozen articles relating to the care, feeding, design, and implementation of intranets, written by leading experts and freelancers in our industry. I urge you to take a look around and drop me a line with your comments. I didn't author any of the pieces, but played more the role of a managing editor to hire the writers and organize the content.

My latest work for Windows Sources magazine is now available at their site as well. You should know by now that I write a regular monthly column called Browser that looks at interesting applications of web technologies, and this month I talk about what HTTP cookies are and how they can be used and abused. Also in the May issue is a feature about what enhanced services Internet Service Providers are offering, beyond just better bandwidth. Things like hosting dynamic web content on database servers, Internet-based fax, and audio broadcasting are just some of the services the more forward-thinking ISPs are doing these days.

And this week my review of MarketWave's Hit List Professional log analyzer ran in Infoworld.

Before I head off on vacation, I wanted to mention an upcoming project on mainframe/web access and see if you have any interest. I am looking for a few end-user sites that are willing to test some mainframe/web access products, provided they are willing to run IP on their IBM mainframes. The sites would receive free use of the products for several months, as well as my assistance in how the products are setup and used. This project is for an upcoming series of stories I'll be doing for Network Computing magazine. Drop me email in a few weeks if you want the details.

Finally, if you need an HTML programmer for the summer or fall, call Adam Menzel. Adam helped get my own web site started when he was 16. How time flies: now he is graduating high school and heading off for college in the Boston area this fall. In the meantime, he is looking for work. If you have need for a part-time programmer, I recommend him highly. There aren't too many college freshman that have the ability to write good HTML and understand the use of graphics, not to mention having the experience of setting up one's own domain name.

David Strom
+1 (516) 944-3407
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entire contents copyright 1997 by David Strom, Inc.