When it comes to using the web, the biggest complaint is how slow it is getting pages to appear on our browsers. No matter what we do to, we can't seem to get to where we are going fast enough.
Well, I have been thinking about this after several events over the past few weeks: Getting the Hughes DirecDuo satellite dish for my house, having problems with my own ISDN connection at the office, and doing some consulting for a new company called CacheFlow that is directly addressing this problem.
First is the dish. DirecDuo does both satellite TV as well as receive-only Internet: you need to still make use of a dial-up connection to transmit information to the 'net. The dish is about two feet wide and comes with two receivers, since the satellite that transmit TV signals is in a different piece of the sky from the one that transmits Internet data. It is, to put it mildly, a hack.
I won't get into all the gory details about how I had to get rid of the first crew of installers for putting five holes in my roof (it only takes four to secure the dish). But think of the character that Tim Allen plays on Home Improvement trying to install an NDIS driver for your Windows 95 machine and you might get the right idea of the challenge that Hughes has with this product. Because it is receive-only, you have two IP addresses for your machine: one for the uplink and one for the downlink. Those of us that have trouble managing one IP address will pale at this concept. You also have two pieces of coax running through your house: one to the PC and one to the TV. This can be a blessing for those that don't have both devices in the same room. You also get two bills.
The first thing I tried to do with the dish was download the latest Internet Explorer software from Microsoft. Yes, it took about 8 minutes to get some 20 megabytes of code. But the time I saved in the download was quickly eaten up when I realized that IE had very nicely deleted my dial-up adapter from my Windows configuration. (The more I use IE, the more I have begun to call it Windows 97 1/2 -- lending credence to Microsoft's claim that the browser is now firmly contained within the operating system. But I digress.)
The dish is now working, but there are some sites that don't like seeing two IP addresses come calling. And while it is faster (about 300 kbps is what I see on most downloads), I am not sure I really need all that speed. Not to mention trying to figure out the 87 different pricing plans to pick depending on what time of day I use the Internet and how much data I download, as well as how many TV channels I want to receive.
Let's move on to my ISDN connection. I've had ISDN in my office for about 22 months and been through several providers: Uunet, PSI, and now Lightning Internet. I am about to switch to a fourth provider, mainly because I know the head cheese and his office is within spitting distance of mine here in town. I have had no quarrels with ISDN service from Nynex (now Bell Atlantic) -- the one time my circuit was down I called their repair number and it was fixed within a few hours. My only quarrel is the price: it costs me about $100 a month in connect charges to make about 20 hours of calls to my ISP. (Business users here in NY are charged per call.)
I like my ISDN line. I connect much faster (within a few seconds). I also almost never see the second channel in use, other than the occasional file transfer. For most email and web uses, the single 64 k channel is adequate to support my little network here at Strom Global HQ.
But what I have found with ISDN is that I have just moved the bottleneck from my own connection to someone else's problem down the line. It may be a congested router at MAE East, or an overloaded server at microsoft.com. And that gets back to today's topic.
With the work I was doing with CacheFlow, I found out that there are many reasons why browsing takes so long. Locating the right bottleneck or cause isn't always easy, and there aren't many good tools to help diagnose the following situations:
I used a copy of Optimal Network's Application Expert and found out that a single request to IBM's web site took eight seconds before the web server responded. That's a slow server. But do you really want to use a $15,000 piece of software to tell you this?
There isn't any way to fix this, unfortunately, short of getting another provider or moving the server you want to view. And the route (and the delays) that is reported by tracert command is dynamic and can change from one minute to another, as the Internet changes.
All in all, we still really don't have a good intuitive notion of how to make the web browsing experience faster. Adding more bandwidth isn't always the solution, as my own ISDN and DirecDuo experience has shown. The only real way is to understand the topology and network characteristics of the piece of the Internet between your browser and web site, which takes time, tools, and trouble to really figure out.
In the past couple of weeks several other articles of mine have appeared.
A review of the Infresco software entitled, Opal melds legacy, SQL, was published last week in ComputerWorld.
My latest Windows Sources "Browser" column is called Protect Your Image on the Web, using ImageGuardian software to prevent people from right-clicking those images down to their hard disks
And for another consulting assignment, I wrote a white paper for CareerPath.com evaluating competing job hunting web repositories and resources entitled Finding a job via the web.
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