In network diagrams, the Internet is often represented by a cloud symbol. The term “Cloud” has, as a result, been adopted to refer to things that happen on the Internet. Google popularized the phrase “Cloud Computing”, which is essentially applications and software that reside exclusively within the Internet. Flickr or Gmail are great examples — no server, no software, no setup wizards — and you can access these cloud-based computing resources with whatever portable device you happen to have handy — your PC, your iPhone — even your Chumby. The reason for the cloud as a symbol is because it’s an amorphous, hard-to-define collection of computers… somewhere out there.
When we analyze the cloud, we can see that while the term “The Internet” is often used as a singular noun, it is in fact,very plural. The Internet is made up of thousands of other networks. That’s what the word Internet means — a network of networks. The cloud is itself a cloud of clouds.
If we look at a map of the Internet, we see a cloud made up of thousands of connected clouds. Each cloud represents a cluster of IP addresses owned by various different organizations. And if we zoom in on those smaller clouds, we find a repeating pattern of nodes connected to other nodes. Some nodes are highly connected within the cloud; some nodes have just a few connections. Zooming in further, we eventually find web servers publishing information within particular organizations. And if we zoom in at the highest resolution, we find each of those web servers connected to still another cloud of nodes: the workstations that access those servers.
At each level of magnification, the Internet appears the same: It’s a loose collection of nodes, a few of which are highly connected hubs, but the vast majority of which are spokes with very few connections. In mathematical terms, it’s called a scale-free network.
Scale-free networks are a hot topic right now, and not only because of the Internet. Social networks are also believed to be scale-scale free networks, as is the human brain. Scale-free networks also exhibit some interesting properties, in that they are highly resistant to random failures but somewhat susceptible to epidemics. The distribution of highly connected nodes to nodes with few connections is a power law distribution, which generates that famous long tail graph.
Those small clouds we see at the lowest level of magnification are the main source of activity on the Internet. This is where all the work gets done. I’m typing this on a PC connected to the VarkNet in the infovark Burrow. You’re probably reading it on a PC that’s connected to your own organization’s network. All of the information on all of the web servers across the entire Internet is ultimately authored by people on personal computers connected via their local networks. Everything on the Big Cloud started on a Small Cloud.
Here’s another interesting thing about a scale-free network: Its rules operate the same way at a macro level as at the micro level. It’s fractal in nature. The same patterns hold, no matter at what resolution you view the system. That’s why the same technology that allowed a handful of academics to send doctoral theses to each other can scale to the point where millions of users can share video with each other. There’s no magical point where Small Cloud architecture becomes Big Cloud architecture. The Small Cloud is the Big Cloud.
The output of all our collective activity on the Internet is information. It’s policies, email discussions and contracts. It’s blog posts, and wiki pages, and accounting spreadsheets and customer service records. Where should that information belong?
As far as the Internet — the network of networks — is concerned, it’s all just a bunch of ones and zeros. It doesn’t really matter where the bits go. Anywhere in the Cloud will do. One network is just as good as another.
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