Like commuting to work or lovemaking, your network is much faster at some times than others. What implications do changing usage habits and the emergence of an internet 'peak hour' have for how we design and build networks?
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Cisco regularly updates its Visual Networking Index (VNI) to make five-year predictions about the volume and type of internet traffic. (We looked at a large selection of those numbers back in March.) By Cisco's latest calculations, in 2017 global internet traffic will top 1.4 zetabytes — the same volume of data carried in total between 1984 and 2012.
In Australia at that point, Cisco is predicting 145 million internet connected devices, with an average of six devices per person — not much of a stretch once you include phones, TV sets and other forms of machine-to-machine communication alongside PCs, tablets and phones. The average wired network download speed with rise from 9Mbps to 75Mbps, while mobile speeds will jump to 8Mbps. (Depending on what happens with the NBN in future years, some of those figures are almost certain to change.)
What really struck me amongst the sea of VNI data was the discussion of 'busy hour' traffic — the evident phenomenon that internet usage isn't spread evenly throughout the day. That's already extremely obvious if you try and use 4G at a train station at 6pm at night, or notice your home connection slowing around 4pm as schoolkids return home.
However, Cisco VP for global technology policy Robert Pepper says the growing use of the internet for video means we're now seeing a "prime time" peak as people settle down in the evenings to consume their favourite shows. Video already accounts for 70 per cent of IP traffic in Australia, and Cisco predicts that will rise to 83 per cent by 2017.
"In Australia and NZ by 2017 we're seeing the peak hour traffic almost three and a half times greater than the average hour traffic across the Internet," Pepper told a VNI media briefing in Sydney. We're beginning to see the development of prime time on the Internet. "So it's not surprising that the consumption model is beginning to mirror the kinds of behaviour we've seen in TV. Prime time in the Internet is 9pm to 1am. That has implications for the kind of network you need, the network architecture and how networks are managed, and how people use the internet."
In a work context, you might not care if there are sudden peaks in demand while everyone scrambles to download the latest episode of Game Of Thrones. However, if you're planning a video conference call with a colleague in another country, it becomes an issue.
There's an obvious parallel with electricity supply, which also needs to account for bursts of high demand. "Peak load is going to be really interesting and quite analogous to the electricity industry," Cisco ANZ MD Ken Boal said. "Like the electricity industry, there might be times where there are peak periods for certain events. In energy, it's around the really hot days. In internet parlance it could be around a sporting event. That might drive another peak load impact which service providers are going to have to cater for."
"There are important questions bout the reliability of those networks, but all of the network operators I work with globally understand the importance of reliability," Pepper said. :If they don't have highly reliable networks they're going to lose customers."