The Cranky Admin

Why Net Neutrality Matters

Its demise would hugely affect cloud computing and IT admins.

Wednesday July 12, 2017 is an Internet-wide day of action to save Net Neutrality. Part of a series of ongoing Net Neutrality protests over the years, this latest is brought about in large part because the current head of the FCC, Ajit Pai, is determined to undo all the pro-consumer decisions made by his predecessors during the Obama administration.

I won't get into debating one side or the other on this topic. For those looking to understand why so many support Net Neutrality, I will point you at the excellent article by Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica. For those who wonder about the viewpoint of those opposing it, I point you to Andrew Orloski at The Register. Though I never say this, read the comments on both. The diversity of viewpoints is illuminating.

Far from an existential crisis aimed at determining who pays how much to whom in order to watch Netflix, Net Neutrality has some very real consequences for systems administrators and the organizations they work for.

Net Neutrality could make everything related to cloud computing more expensive. It could allow your ISP to choose to slow down traffic to any cloud provider that provides a service that the ISP offers from their own datacenter. It could slow down traffic to any service provider except those that profit-share with the ISP.

This is inconvenient for small, local businesses, to be sure, who would be effectively herded towards using specific services. The buzzword term here is that the ISP would be "picking winners." The reality, however, is that for smaller organizations and for most consumers Net Neutrality would be merely an inconvenience. For larger organizations that are geographically dispersed, or who have a significant percentage of work-from-home staff who use different ISPs, it could be ruinous.

A Big Stick
Imagine for a moment an organization with sites distributed across the globe, and IT operations in multiple locations with multiple different ISPs. For reasons of geographic distribution, the whole of the organization's IT cannot be serviced by a single ISP.

In a world without Net Neutrality, it's entirely possible that any attempt to use a cloud service could end up providing a massively asymmetric experience for different sites within the organization. In addition to annoyances like the CRM site being slow for one site and blazing fast for another, a lack of Net Neutrality would allow ISPs that didn't receive a ransom from a cloud provider to throttle access to that provider down so much that, for example, sites using the throttling ISP wouldn't be able to even complete nightly backups.

A world without Net Neutrality doesn't only mean that ISPs can shake down cloud providers and hosted services providers. It also means that they can hold hostage access to one another's customer bases. Larger ISPs could demand tithe from smaller ones to allow communication between the two at anything slower than a crawl. This could potentially result in geographically distributed organizations having sites unable to communicate with one another without warning.

Many vs. One
There is some argument that no such thing would happen without the ISPs offering customers the opportunity to buy their way out of the problem with higher fees. If the head office wants to be able to communicate with all of its satellite operations, it can just pay a surcharge to have their packets un-throttled, regardless of whether or not the cloud service or ISP they're currently in conflict with has paid the ransom.

This may occur, or it may not; it depends on the perceived strength of the ISP's negotiating position. Offering those with the cash the opportunity to buy a throttle-free pipe reduces the threat of an ISP's packet blockade. Nobody's going to fight over whether or not the hoi polloi have access to anything. Nobody cares. The Net Neutrality debate has always been about shaking down those with means.

This is the real risk of an Internet without Net Neutrality for today's organizations: unpredictability. If we all get throttled back to the 1990s, we'll cope. We won't like it, but we'll adapt. If the Internet shatters into a series of "fast lanes" and "slow lanes" and it's pretty clear who is where, again, we'll adapt. That's what the Internet does: it routes around damage.

Unfortunately, adaptation takes time. If the speeds at which we can access services and even satellite locations becomes unpredictable, where we locate which bits of IT infrastructure becomes a crapshoot. We either have to go back to the days of doing everything on each individual site, or we take the risk that any given site could be cut off from IT services without warning.

An unpredictable Internet is an unusable one. Predictability in terms of speeds and latencies is important, but so are predictable costs. Like it or not, IT decisions take years to implement and generally need to be able to pay out over the course of a decade.

Organizations simply cannot afford to be used as bargaining chips in high-stakes games of ISP poker. The unpredictability will do us all in long before a price hike will. In a world without Net Neutrality, however, bargaining chips is all any of us will be.

About the Author

Trevor Pott is a full-time nerd from Edmonton, Alberta, Canada. He splits his time between systems administration, technology writing, and consulting. As a consultant he helps Silicon Valley startups better understand systems administrators and how to sell to them.

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