"Tubes": A Book for EdTech Infrastructure Geeks

Andrew Blum takes the name of his great book on the physical Internet, the Internet infrastructure, from Senator Ted Stevens' famous quote.

July 17, 2012

Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet by Andrew Blum

Published May of 2012

Andrew Blum takes the name of his great book on the physical Internet, the Internet infrastructure, from Senator Ted Stevens' famous quote:

"It's a series of tubes. And if you don't understand, those tubes can be filled and if they are filled, when you put your message in, it gets in line and it's going to be delayed by anyone that puts into that tube enormous amounts of material, enormous amounts of material."

We all made fun of the late Senator Stevens for his "tubes" quote, but it turns out that he was right all along. The Internet is not an abstract concept but a series of physical elements. Tubes is a travel journey to the Internet.   

Where would you start if you wanted to visit the Internet? I'd begin at our campus server room, the place that (at least in the past) held the spinning discs and servers that house our higher ed applications and data. With the rise of cloud based enterprise and consumer productivity apps our campus data center, while still essential, is no longer the only piece of our academic Internet infrastructure. A visit to the campus data center would only be the first step in a journey to understand the technological infrastructure that is increasingly at the heart of what we do in higher ed.

Some of the best parts of Tubes include Blum's visits to the enormous data centers that are increasingly at the heart of our computing and mobile experience.  Data centers account for about 1.5 percent of global electricity consumption, and over 2 percent in the U.S. If you run a data center about the only thing you care about is the cost and reliability of power. All other expenses, from building to security to even the servers, are insignificant when compared to the costs of power.  How companies choose to locate these new enormous data centers makes up some of the most fascinating reporting found in Tubes.

How much will you learn about the physical, tangible side of the Internet from Tubes? If you are already a network engineer then you might find some of the technical details lacking in Tubes.  I kept wishing for more nitty-gritty details, more information about costs and more numbers about bandwidth, storage, square feet, and server counts. Tubes is not written for a technical audience, which is a strength as the book is widely accessible but a weakness if you come to the book with some decent Internet knowledge and vocabulary. This complaint, however, should not stop you from reading Tubes - as even if you have some specialized expertise you will learn a great deal about how the Internet infrastructure evolved and how the ecosystem is expanding worldwide.

Are there other Internet infrastructure tourists besides Blum?  Can we book a vacation that hits the world's biggest data centers, Internet Exchange Points, and fiber optic termination points?  While courting my wife I took her to visit the Le Musée des Égouts de Paris (the Paris Sewer Museum), I'm thinking that an Internet Infrastructure tour would be a step up.

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