Keeping pace with the 'Net's astonishing growth

For years now, International Data Corp. has generated an admittedly less-than-bulletproof forecast of the number of URLs on the Web.

In antiquity, IDG (my employer) could get occasional fixes on its forecast from the major search engine companies, but now everybody seems to have given up trying to count total pages on the Web. Nobody can see the whole thing at once.

We figure the Internet now supports more than 700 million pages. In a few years, the total will be 10 times that. According to Vinton Cerf, speaking at the Internet Society's annual meeting last month, the number of 'Net connections will exceed phone connections by the middle of the next decade. My own forecasts puts a billion devices on the Internet by 2004. By then, the overall 'Net economy will be pushing 5 per cent of the world's gross domestic product.

So, as soon as the IT world gets a hammerlock on the year 2000 problem, we'll face another one: a wired market growing like a weed.

There's bound to be pain involved.

Merely dealing with the traffic will be one issue. According to my calculations, Internet traffic is already 1 per cent of the world's total voice and data traffic. In five years, it will be almost 20 per cent -- a whopping 2,000 terabits a day. We may have the wires and fiber circuits in place to handle all that, but I doubt we have all the switches, routers and software to handle peak loads and traffic jams at key junctions. I also doubt that most IS directors realise how much they'll have to worry about network performance in years to come. Or how much disk capacity they'll buy.

And with so many new users coming to the Internet, the neighborhood is bound to go downhill. Extrapolating from US crime statistics, I once figured that by the year 2002, there will be nearly 10 million crooks on the Web. That means multiple millions of nefarious events (those perpetrated on other 'Net users and those that use the medium to con or scam those who aren't 'Netizens). Given the law of averages, some Internet criminals will be quite sophisticated. Good luck to the average auditor, prosecutor, FBI agent -- or IS director -- trying to fight this crime.

That growth also means that the Internet will be harder to understand. It will metastasize and mutate beyond recognition. The Internet Society, which has gone through at least one transformation already, is discovering that now as it heads for another. There are at least three separate plans for a next-generation Internet, domain name management is under fire and the job of setting standards has passed from an official Internet Engineering Task Force committee to vendors in the market. The 'Net, once a federation of networks governed by common protocols and understood at least by a few, is now unknowable in its entirety.

And that, folks, is the milieu in which we will manage our computers, our applications and our networks. The Internet will become a stew of probability states: something you can use, like quantum mechanics, but not really understand. If the efforts of companies such as Sun -- with its push for Java and now Jini -- bear fruit, the 'Net will become the mysterious backlight for a giant worldwide computer that we will all time-share.

The best we can do as the Internet takes us places we've never been is to keep our all-too-little house in order.

(Gantz is senior vice president at IDC in Massachusetts. His Internet address is jgantz@idcresearch.com.)

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John Gantz

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