The internet is based on unintended and uncertain consequences. And that’s in its design.
Now I’m not talking about how the web escaped from the really useful tool in CERN. I’m not talking about how the parent of the internet, ARPANET is a direct consequence of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand.* (Mainly because it isn’t++.)
The internet, or rather the Internet Protocol on which the internet runs is based on three concepts:
1) Packet routing; moving small chunks of information around at a time
2) Protocol hierarchy; a careful and clear organization to the structure of the data that moves across the Internet (mostly through Babushka doll like wrappers)
3) Best effort is good enough, which means living with unintended consequences.
At the time, best effort was the exact opposite of how things were done. The network of computers at the time was based on point-to-point circuit-based communications. That meant a dedicated (if sometimes temporary) “physical” connection 100% of the time while connected. This is very similar to the old telephone system, there had to be an actual phone to phone connection for the length of the call. There may be an uplink and downlink satellite connection (or more) along the way, but it was a dedicated connection, and there were a few colleges that have dedicated pipes between them. This dedicated connection granted one thing; 100% guaranteed transfer of data.
There were no packets, routing information wasn’t needed once the connection was established, and every bit was acknowledged since the dedicated connection meant no congestion.
But it was very, very expensive. You needed to have enough modems (remember them) for every call you expected to need at any one time. TCP/IP meant connections could be shared, as the data was split up and routed through, so you needed fewer modems, or routers.
Other network protocols have packets and embedded routing, but best effort is the scary part, because its designed imperfection.
Best effort means firing off the packets dressed in their routing best, and not keeping an eye on them. It means the receiver of the information does not send an acknowledgement for each packet. This actually makes sense, because data is bursty.
While there is data flowing somewhere on the net, some routers are quieter than others, and sometimes a router gets more packets in than its able to send out. So rather than trying to carefully account for every packet (and risk end up exceeding the capacity of the router) it simply drops them. The packets are deleted. Parts of thoughts and dreams vanish. Designed imperfection.
It just drops them, and doesn’t tell anyone (after all if its getting more packets than it can send out, why send out more packets as its already exceeded its limits).
Just remember that this the the technology you are using right now, so you know it works.
So lets say that the middle of a file gets dropped, how come you get the file in the end? Well that’s not something the Internet Protocol worries about. The fixer is part of the TCP, Transmission Control Protocol. TCP rearranges out of order packets, handles duplicates and requests missing packets if they don’t show up after an allotted time. Its part of the Protocol Hierarchy of the three structures of the net, in this case, it repairs damage caused by using the Internet Protocol. It is also why TCP/IP is rarely separated.
So the Internet Protocol looks like a rickety mess which might have the unintended consequence of loosing half your data, but its what we use. And if you can read this… its working.
This is a Loose Bloggers Consortium post on the theme of “Unforeseen Circumstances”; chosen by Gaelikaa. To find out that the others in the consortium think, check out, in alphabetical order: Akanksha (Anki), Anu, Ashok, Conrad, Delirious, Gaelikaa, Grannymar, Magpie 11, Maria Silver Fox, Padmum, Noor, Rohit and the GOM of LBC, Ramana Sir.
Thanks to Steve Gibson for the IP description.
* OK, the First World War didn’t necessarily have its root in the assassination, but the First World War begot the defeat of Germany which lead to the Deutsch-mark devaluing and hyperinflation which begot the circumstances for World War 2, which lead to the USA and Russia becoming superpowers, which begot a lot of German scientists working for them, which begot the Space Race and the Cold War and nuclear proliferation which lead to ARPANET that became the internet. Greatly simplified, but a seeming unintended result during these wars, right? Actually no.
++ The legend that the ARPANET was designed to survive a nuclear war is actually false. After it was up and running it was confirmed that the routing mechanism would allow for such a consequence, but it was really created to save money and allow easier access for academics. The legend persists however because of that unforeseen circumstance during its design.