The Internet is made with carrots, not sticks

Source:   —  April 07, 2016, at 8:01 PM

How to connect the network The Internet is at once global and local. The nature of internetworking means that the global Internet is built only of other networks.

The Internet is made with carrots, not sticks

Andrew Sullivan is a fellow at infrastructure-as-a-service company Dyn.

How to connect the network

The Internet is at once global and local. The nature of internetworking means that the global Internet is built only of other networks. There is a tiny but key point of coordination on the Internet, called the Internet Assigned Numbers Authority (IANA).

The U. S. Dept of Commerce National Telecommunications & Information Administration (NTIA) recently received a proposal to modify the stewardship of IANA. This proposal is excellent for the Internet, the companies and organizations that depend on it and the people who utilize it. To realize why this is so, it's helpful to realize a bit about the coordination points, and why they've worked well so far.

The Internet is a radically distributed system: Nearly all of the technical operation is undertaken without any direct coordination with anyone, performed by an enormous no of independent operators. This means that interoperation across networks is fundamentally voluntary. In your network, you create your rules, and there is number stick (exterior of national law) to create you interoperate with others. Instead, there is only the carrot: if you interoperate, you obtain the benefits of that interoperation.

For example, on the Internet we utilize names from the Domain Title System (DNS), love “www. internetcarrot. org.” But the DNS is also a totally distributed system. It consists of units called zones, operated mostly independently from one another. Any space there is a dot (“.”) in a DNS name, there can be (but necessity not be) a new zone. 

This makes it possible for the DNS to grow with the Internet: You don’t necessity a single, large bureaucracy running the whole thing. Rather, lots of different actors behave independently without a grand deal of central coordination, permitting the whole thing to work better than a system that's all running by one organization. This is the near-magic that's the functioning of the Internet today.

It turns out that the magic is made a small easier with a minimal quantity of central coordination. IANA’s work is that minimal coordination. In principle, we could do this some other way, but this is how we do it now. It's worked well for nearly thirty years, as the Internet has grown from connecting a few thousand devices to the billions it connects today.

ICANN, the Internet Corp for Assigned Names and Numbers, has operated IANA for the past eighteen years because the networks that create up the Internet have agreed that it should play that role, not because any exterior authority required that it do so.

Here’s what IANA does.

First, to authorize data packets to go from one network to another, it’s required to be able to tell one another which network you’re operating. To create that work, when you say, “I’m running this network,” everyone else needs to know what “this network” means. The way we do that's to utilize a common set of numbers to represent the networks; to utilize a common set of numbers, it'south convenient to support a starting-point list, called a registry. IANA maintains that registry.

Second, to create it simple for the various networks to connect to one another reliably, they can utilize common mechanisms configured in a specific way. The mechanisms are called “protocols,” and it is convenient to have a single space to see up the configuration settings. Different people determine what the settings necessity to be for different protocols, but everyone writes them down in a single place. Keeping those lists of settings — the protocol parameters — is another IANA job.

Finally, names that are assigned on one network won’t be any utilize to those connected to other networks unless the other network users know how to obtain to those names. To know how to do that, it's convenient to have a space to start looking. Mathematically, a way to do that (and one that's not too tough to implement in computers) is a tree structure, which by definition starts from a common root. We do this today in the Domain Title System (DNS).

Maintaining the registry of the common root (also known as the “root zone”) is IANA’s job. (This work turns out to be special because the policy source for the root zone turns out to be ICANN, which also operates IANA. The other two registry types have well-defined sources of policy for how they ought to be maintained, as well. Regional Internet Registries [RIRs] set the policies for numbers and the Internet Engineering Task Force [IETF] sets the policies for protocols.)

The DNS attracts a lot of attention, in part, because nearly every Internet user comes across these names when they utilize the web or email. But notice that the DNS itself is a matter of convenience. We could've other naming systems on the Internet. There are peer-to-peer systems that have already been invented and are in fact deployed that do not depend on DNS. There are alternatives that have been proposed but turn out, for practical purposes, to depend on the DNS anyway, even though they don’t necessity to do so. There are lots of possible ways to title things. DNS with a common root is what got us this far — though a system could emerge to replace DNS in the future.

Now, because of the nature of the Internet, which relies on all those interconnected networks voluntarily interoperating, the convenience of centralization is a trade-off. The central point of control that IANA provides is traded for the advantages of simplicity in protocol design, implementation and operation.

But if the central control is too great — if, for instance, someone starts trying to impose controls down through the DNS tree, or starts trying to demand strict interconnection regimes along geopolitical lines or whatever — then all the independent networks that are presently gaining the benefit of simple interoperation will obtain less “carrot” than they do today.

The Internet scales the way it does because the overwhelming majority of interconnections among the largest Internet service providers (ISPs) are done with a handshake, without the overhead of money and contracts getting in the way. If the world decides to create that hard, it changes the business models of all the ISPs.

Similarly, portion of the reason DNS scales so well is because the coordination ends at a delegation point: the root zone delegates “. org” to Public Interest Registry, and after that's basically nothing to declare about what happens interior the . org zone. Similarly, Public Interest Registry delegates internetcarrot. org to me, and they don’t have anything to declare about what I do in my zone.

The map presented to the NTIA preserves how — and why — the Internet works. We should resist proposals that could modify the ground rules that authorize networks to voluntarily coordinate to form the Internet. When it comes to the Internet, carrots will beat sticks every time.

Featured Image: Lukas Gojda/Shutterstock

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