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Book Report: Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet

Worthwhile read for those who want to understand the where the Internet resides and what it looks like

Okay, I admit that I’m a geek and have read numerous books on the history of IT and the Internet.  Katie Hafner’s, Where Wizards Stay up Late, The Origins of the Internet, is a particular favorite of mine. 

Along these lines, I just finished a book called, Tubes. A Journey to the Center of the Internet, by Andrew Blum, a Wired Magazine correspondent.  Now Tubes does provide a bit of Internet history around the Arpanet project, BBN, the Interface Message Processor (IMP), and the original Internet node at UCLA but it takes the story in a different direction.  Tubes goes on to look at the physical stuff like routers, cables, buildings, spinning disk drives, etc. – where they are, how they got there, who built them, and who manages them.

I can certainly relate to this book.  Way back when during the Internet boom, I worked at a fly-by-night telecom startup named GiantLoop Network where I gained a bit knowledge about Internet pipes.  Yup, I toured 111 8th Ave. in NYC (a massive telecom hotel now owned by Google) and Brooklyn’s MetroTech Center.  My company also had relationships with a cast of Internet characters like AboveNet, ConEd Communications, Enron, Global Crossing, and Metromedia Fiber Network (MFN). 

In this role, I got to talk the Internet talk for a while back in 2000, but Tubes helped fill in the blanks about all the stuff I didn’t know or hadn’t kept up with.  For others who haven’t touched the bowels of the Internet, Tubes acts as a tour guide on major pieces of Internet infrastructure with commentary on how these pieces co-exist. 

I won’t give away details, but here are a few tidbits I learned (or re-learned, I’m getting old) from this book:

  1. Blum does a good job of describing how massive Internet connectivity came together during the boom of the 1990s.  Remember Metropolitan Area Exchange (MAE) East, MAE-West, and the Palo Alto Internet Exchange (PAIX)?  The book provides a good description of their development (In recounting the story of PAIX, Blum refers to Digital Equipment Corporation (DEC) as: “one of Silicon Valley’s oldest and most venerable computer companies.”  Yes, PAIX was a valley-based institution, but as Blum has probably heard dozens of times since his book’s publication, Digital belonged to Ken Olsen and his fellow New England Yankees in places like Maynard, MA).
  2. Blum set off to visit some of the biggest Internet exchanges, specifically in Frankfurt and Amsterdam.  In this chapter, he does a good job at not only describing the technology aspects of each but also how these exchanges fit into their city’s geography, history, and culture.  Later in the book, Blum takes the reader through a similar stroll through the telecom hotels in lower Manhattan, dragging the reader through subway conduits, telecommunications history, wire pulling in the streets of Manhattan, and into the fiber optic/Internet present.  Finally, Blum follows the path of undersea fiber to places like Porthcurno (Cornwall England), Lisbon, and the U.S. Atlantic coast.  He also describe the people and processes involved in picking these routes, deploying the fiber, and then connecting them to continental networks by the sea.
  3. The book concludes with visits to massive data centers in areas like The Dalles (Google) and Prineville (Facebook) Oregon.  In this chapter, Blum also meets with Microsoft executives and digs into how and why certain data center locations are chosen.  Blum goes from tour guide to editorial contributor here, describing his Orwellian experience with the PR/legal-centric Google data center folks and a contrasting episode with surprisingly transparent Facebook personnel. 

No, this isn’t a text book with deep technical descriptions.  Rather it reads like a picaresque novel of one man’s journey for knowledge.  Kind of an amalgamation of Homer’s Odyssey and a BGP routing table.  Blum keeps asking questions, recounting history, and uncovering facts.  As he gains knowledge, he brings the reader along for the ride.

I play in part of a rock n’ roll cover band here in Massachusetts with a few of my buddies from town.  A few years ago, I learned that some of the ancient monitors we include in our sound system were actually used at Woodstock.  I have no idea if this is true but it’s a great story and it gave me an emotional connection to the history of rock.  My guess is that through his journey and book publication, Blum established a similar bond with the Internet infrastructure.  This sense of joy and empathy comes shining through in Tubes, making it a fun read for geeks like me who never run out of questions to ask. 

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