Nothing happening here. Move along.

So the Wall Street Journal runs Google Wants Its Own Fast Track on the Web, by Vinesh Kumar and Christopher Rhoads. It’s dated today, but hit the Web yesterday. Among other things it says,

Google Inc. has approached major cable and phone companies that carry Internet traffic with a proposal to create a fast lane for its own content, according to documents reviewed by The Wall Street Journal. Google has traditionally been one of the loudest advocates of equal network access for all content providers.

At risk is a principle known as network neutrality: Cable and phone companies that operate the data pipelines are supposed to treat all traffic the same — nobody is supposed to jump the line.

I declined to post on this yesterday because I suspected that this was simply a matter of edge caching: locating services as close to users as possible, to minimize network latencies and maximize accessibility. Akamai‘s whole business is based on this kind of thing. Much of what we now call the “cloud” — including conveniences provided by Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others — are back-end utilities that benefit from relative proximity to users. It’s all part of what Nick Carr calls The Big Switch.

As Richard Whitt of Google puts it here,

Edge caching is a common practice used by ISPs and application and content providers in order to improve the end user experience. Companies like Akamai, Limelight, and Amazon’s Cloudfront provide local caching services, and broadband providers typically utilize caching as part of what are known as content distribution networks (CDNs). Google and many other Internet companies also deploy servers of their own around the world.

By bringing YouTube videos and other content physically closer to end users, site operators can improve page load times for videos and Web pages. In addition, these solutions help broadband providers by minimizing the need to send traffic outside of their networks and reducing congestion on the Internet’s backbones. In fact, caching represents one type of innovative network practice encouraged by the open Internet.

Google has offered to “colocate” caching servers within broadband providers’ own facilities; this reduces the provider’s bandwidth costs since the same video wouldn’t have to be transmitted multiple times. We’ve always said that broadband providers can engage in activities like colocation and caching, so long as they do so on a non-discriminatory basis.

All of Google’s colocation agreements with ISPs — which we’ve done through projects called OpenEdge and Google Global Cache — are non-exclusive, meaning any other entity could employ similar arrangements. Also, none of them require (or encourage) that Google traffic be treated with higher priority than other traffic. In contrast, if broadband providers were to leverage their unilateral control over consumers’ connections and offer colocation or caching services in an anti-competitive fashion, that would threaten the open Internet and the innovation it enables.

But there is a political side to this. The WSJ is playing the Gotcha! game here, “catching” Google jumping “the line” across which its postion on Net Neutrality is compromised. According to Whitt, it’s not.

Net Neutrality as a topic is complex and politically charged. One can argue with Google’s position on the topic. But I don’t believe one can argue that edge caching deals are a compromise of that position, simply because these deals are nothing new, and do nothing to squeeze other companies out of doing the same kind of thing (so long as Google doesn’t make the deals exclusive, which it says it’s not doing).

Hat tip to my colleague Steve Schultze, who is on top of this stuff far more than I am.

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13 comments

  1. KMSelf’s avatar

    The other advantage of edge-caching, particularly for Web 2.0 / SAS and hosted applications, is decreased latency times.

    The round-trip time for online transactions, particularly for complex applications in which a “single” transaction consists of multiple request-and-update loops, is significant. Users start being aware of application lag at 0.1 seconds, and anything above 1.0 seconds is disruptive to interactive activity (Jacob Nielsen http://www.useit.com/papers/responsetime.html). While website load times of 5-10 seconds may be acceptable, this isn’t the case for apps.

    For worst-case domestic links (east-coast to left-coast), you’re looking at about 70 ms ping time. That puts a single round-trip above Nielsen’s minimum, and breaks the one-second mark at 7 round-trips. That doesn’t include any leeway for back-end work such as database queries and lookups.

    This stuff, if it succeeds, will be critically dependent on smart caching and very likely QoS tuning.

  2. SRSL FRIENDLY’s avatar

    Doc, You’re forgetting that AKAM isn’t a content provider.

    Remember Lessig’s objection? “If Google, for example, knew it could buy a kind of access for its video content that iFilm couldn’t, then it could exploit its advantage to create an even greater disadvantage for its competitors”

    - This is GOOG’s attempt to buy access that iFilm can’t.

    Do you srsly believe that GOOG caches *won’t* do things unavailable to purchase by others (AKAM included)?

    Startups won’t be able to buy access to the caches with the special sauce. This is a delivery land-grab made by a rich, savvy content owner/provider when the ISPs are looking for money. Murdock himself would blush at the devilish genius.

  3. Pauly’s avatar

    Maybe I’m missing something due to gaps in my network engineering expertise, but regarding “so long as Google doesn’t make the deals exclusive, which it says it’s not doing”, isn’t it up to the telcos/cablecos to determine exclusivity/nonexclusivity here?

  4. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Pauly, the carriers can decide whether or not they want to rent space to more than one company at their “edge” facilities. But the WSJ story was about Google. And Google says it is not looking for exclusive deals here.

  5. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Akamai may not be a content provider, but it privileges the content providers who can afford its services.

    And yes, Google will be able to do things not available to other companies. They already do, without the carriers’ help.

    What’s lost here is the opportunity that carriers have to do business with anybody, including their own “consumers”. Hey, I’d be glad to pay Verizon a few bucks more every month for a few IP addresses and the ability to run a server here. I’d pay them for a higher service tier as well. But Verizon sticks with antique “business” service pricing that starts as a multiple of its home service, with lower throughput rates. This prevents more business than it brings in. Thus my money for the services I want lays there on the table.

  6. Small Webmaster’s avatar

    Doc, I follow your blog and know that you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, so I hope that you will consider this issue a little more carefully and realize that it DOES matter. You just have to take off the doctrinaire glasses of the “network neutrality” crowd, who are myopically focused on the pipes, to see why.

    Think about this for a second. Google is likely to be able to place an edge cache at the site of any ISP it wants. Probably for free, because Google is big. Google, YouTube, and its related services consume SO much bandwidth and are SO wildly popular that no ISP would say no. But could the ISP afford to allow just ANYONE to get free hosting by putting a cache at their sites? Doubtful. Caches take up space and power and require access for maintenance. And of course, would-be competitors won’t be able to buy space on Google’s private edge caches. So, in what way is this neutral? Google can get its servers into places where CoolNewInternetGarageStartup.com can’t. Google is still getting preferential access to infrastructure — it’s just co-location space instead of pipes.

  7. Harry Lewis’s avatar

    But that isn’t a Net neutrality issue. Neutrality has to to with favorable delivery of certain packets over others. Even the most fervent of neutrality advocates don’t plan to create a world in which having money doesn’t help you at all in any way. It’s a bit like Pagerank. You can’t pay Google to increase it; Google is neutral to your bribes. But if you have a lot of money you can pay an SEO firm to spruce up your web page in all the ways that it knows will raise your Pagerank. So you spend a bunch of money and your Pagerank goes up, which is all you really cared about. Decide for yourself whether that is unfair; either way, it doesn’t make Google non-neutral.

  8. Doc Searls’s avatar

    Small Webmaster, I’ll bet that Google isn’t getting a free ride from any ISP where it places its edge caching gear. But I’d like to hear hard evidence either way, mostly because I’d like to know the economics of this stuff.

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