As more companies and individuals rely on services provided through the cloud (or, if you will, the Internet), the following question arises: what is the ultimate limit? Demand for IT services—whether cloud based or otherwise—is constantly growing, and data centers are consuming a greater percentage of global energy production every year. Even ignoring the issue of energy, however, the move toward heavier reliance on the cloud runs up against another limited resource: bandwidth.
Dealing With Limited Bandwidth
As long as available bandwidth exceeds peak usage, bandwidth won’t be a limiter of data center and cloud growth. But as users (employees or consumers) rely more heavily on the cloud instead of locally provisioned services (i.e., the Internet instead of software or hardware at home or on company premises), bandwidth demand will increase. Like all other resources, bandwidth costs money. Many service providers try to use existing infrastructure (phone lines, cable and so on) to avoid additional expenses, but eventually, upgrades are required—even if this simply means more fiber.
If you have lived in a rural area for a long period of time, you may know all too well the problems of bandwidth. If you’re stuck on dialup—which some people in the U.S. still are, believe it or not—you are basically cut off from many popular Internet/cloud-based services, ranging from video-on-demand streaming to online backup and much more. Even simple web browsing is a chore. Increasingly, however, even DSL is showing its age relative to the services that users demand (e.g., HD video).
Businesses can face similar problems, even though it may not involve YouTube. Online backup is a lengthy chore for large amounts of data in the absence of a high-bandwidth connection, and the cost of such connections—assuming they’re available—can be high.
If you follow basic economics, then you know that the only alternative to more supply of bandwidth in the face of rising demand is higher cost—and that’s in essence what many service providers are implementing, often in the form of a usage cap or bandwidth throttling.
Will Bandwidth Consumption Plateau on Its Own?
Eventually, video reaches its maximum useful resolution (where increased resolution is imperceptible by the human eye), and users—both companies and consumers—are uploading and downloading material as fast as they can make use of it (however that’s defined). With ever more cloud-based (including mobile) services being offered and video consumption continuing to rise, this maximum certainly has yet to be reached.
Bandwidth caps are one way to limit bandwidth usage, holding off the need for more infrastructure to meet demand. Whether that cap is a strict maximum, a maximum beyond which additional fees are paid or a maximum beyond which throttling is imposed, the result is a change in user behavior—although it isn’t always necessarily for the better. Tom’s Hardware (“Bandwidth Caps Can Cause Risky Decisions and Uncertainty”) cites Georgia Tech postdoctoral researcher Marshini Chetty: “People’s behavior does change when limits are placed on Internet access...We would also hear about people ‘saving’ bandwidth all month and then binge downloading toward the end of their billing period.” Naturally, a consumer wants to maximize the value of his or her dollar, so toward the end of, say, a month of frugality to avoid surcharges or service limitations, that user may go wild watching YouTube videos (in high definition, of course) to consume the bandwidth purchased for that month. Chances are, however, that many users will not significantly change their overall bandwidth usage characteristics relative to unlimited bandwidth—assuming, of course, the cap is sufficiently high. Those poor souls stuck with mobile broadband as their source of broadband because of a lack of other options know well the feeling of being on a YouTube diet.
Assuming, however, that new higher-bandwidth services are continually developed and offered (beyond HD video, for example, users might start demanding 3D video), the demand for more bandwidth will continue to grow. Limited spectrum over the airwaves imposes a fairly strict limit on wireless, although new protocols and technologies help squeeze more out of available frequencies. This basically leaves fiber as the bandwidth staple. (Again, if you live in a rural area—particularly in the U.S.—good luck seeing a fiber plant anytime soon.) As the Internet becomes an increasingly greater source of information, entertainment and commerce, bandwidth will become almost as critical as watts delivered over the power lines.
Telcos: Really Concerned About Bandwidth, or Just Concerned About Profit?
Much of the rationale for bandwidth caps by telecom and cable companies is to prevent abuse by a few users, thus leaving sufficient bandwidth for everybody else. And often, the bandwidth limits are high enough that most users won’t reach them. But as more users rely on the Internet for more of their television viewing, these caps may become more of an issue. In the context of cloud storage, ITworld (“The real limits of cloud computing”) notes, “You can agree or disagree with [telcos’] motives...but the real presence of data caps put a serious damper on using the cloud for storage. Granted, business Internet accounts have no such caps, but the premium that must be paid to get fast business-grade access is quite high with most providers.” Indeed, some of these motives (such as to limit traffic from providers of competing services, as in the case of, say, Comcast versus Netflix) have led to the calls for so-called net neutrality.
A concern with profits is natural for companies—they are, after all, in business to make money. But cable and telecom companies are part of highly regulated industries, and these regulations often do plenty to insulate these companies from competition and from laws that apply to many private businesses. (Ask yourself if, for instance, if there’s anything you can do about the unsightly telephone wires crossing your property.) Thus, it is at least somewhat incumbent on these companies to invest in infrastructure to meet the demand of captive consumers who often have no choice of alternative providers. TechnoBuffalo (“Physical Media’s Dead, But Data Caps Cripple Bandwidth. So Now What?”) notes that “Cable and broadband operators need to start investing in infrastructure, and they need to do it yesterday. They’re already playing catch up as it is...Consider this: What potential is there for companies to innovate incredible new platforms when users don’t have the bandwidth for them?”
Bandwidth may not be as prominent a concern as energy when it comes to IT and data centers, but it does merit scrutiny. Insufficient bandwidth can strangle the growth of cloud computing—both at the business and consumer levels. Giant cloud data centers cannot deliver all their services to users if the “pipes” carrying those services aren’t big enough. Low bandwidth availability is becoming tantamount to power brownouts, where companies and consumers effectively lose the ability to use services, even though the utility is nominally active. If you’ve tried accessing the Internet over dialup in the past few years, you know the feeling: you have Internet access, but you are missing out on many services. Bandwidth must keep pace with cloud services if those services are to be useful.
Photo courtesy of Sean MacEntee