Navigating the Challenges of Digital Network Resilience

A closer look at security and the complexities of dependence

In Issue 13 of Interglobix Magazine, I wrote about sustainability in the context of computer communications and digital networks. Here I would like to emphasize another aspect of our increasing reliance on digital communication networks, especially but not exclusively from the perspective of subsea and continental optical fiber networks. That these networks carry the bulk of our digital communications seems self-evident. The dramatic increase in streaming audio and video entertainment and video conferencing over the past several years can be attributed, in part, to our pandemic experiences of working from home and substituting conferencing for travel. As with many other technical capabilities, once they prove feasible, it is hard not to become increasingly dependent on them for convenience and flexibility.

With dependence comes risk. Once we rely on these technologies, the absence of timely alternatives can have significant downsides. A natural reaction from the engineering perspective is to increase investment in reliability through redundancy and provision for backup. In digital networking, especially illustrated with the Internet, we find ourselves investing in satellites, independent fiber paths, multiple Internet Exchange Points (IXPs), adaptive alternate routing, and other mechanisms to account for a variety of potential failure modes. Some of these remedies are visible in business deals such as fiber swaps, private peering interconnects and collaborative subsea fiber construction.

Ironically, concerns for data security or so-called data sovereignty may lead to a less resilient Internet than the one we need. Understandable concerns for citizen online safety, security and privacy, have led some countries to adopt policies that reduce redundancy and ability or willingness to allow traffic flows outside of national or regional network infrastructure. It seems to me important to recognize that transborder data flows are fundamental to the 21st Century Internet’s utility. An example of a typical web page is illustrative. For many web pages, the hypertext markup (HTML) description of the page will contain many URL references to web pages that could be literally anywhere on the Internet. Without free flow of data, these web pages will fail (hence the familiar “404 page not found” error message). Of course, that error can also happen if the referenced web page is actually gone and therefore inaccessible. That’s a different problem that I sometimes think of as a kind of bit rot. To the extent, however, that the WWW works through the broad accessibility of web pages everywhere, we should be alert to the importance of reliable transborder data flows among the myriad networks that make of the Internet.

This story is part of a paid subscription. Please subscribe for immediate access.

Subscribe Now
Already a member? Log in here