Net outruns Moore's law

October 16, 1998

The Memorial Auditorium at California's Stanford University, shaken earlier that morning by two earthquake shocks, was the scene for the opening of the sixth Hot Interconnects conference on August 12. What crumbled was the notion that Moore's Law, the rule that computers double in power every 18 months, is an adequate measure of the rate of technological change.

Leading academics and engineers from Silicon Valley industries meet at this annual event to discuss the future of networking. Keynote speaker Charles Giancarlo, vice president of global alliances at Cisco Systems, boldly looked five years into the future at technologies permeating our daily life and amassing at five times the Moore's Law pace. He offered advice to companies in or entering the digital highway products game with its turbulent price wars. Main focus was the Internet. Moore's law stipulates that performance of microprocessors doubles every 18 months. If you consider the Net as a loosely coupled heterogeneous multi-computer system, then its development is staggering when contrasted to architectures that obey Moore's law. According to service and network providers, Net traffic is doubling every 100 days. This defies Moore's law and means that the network technologies are rewriting the rules. This explosive growth challenges telephone and cable TV operators looking for the best way to entice subscribers. They will have to juggle with pricing, quality of service and future-proofing.

Within five years data traffic should exceed voice traffic. It took the telephone more than 20 years to reach 30 million users, television 15 years to reach 30 million, and the Net perhaps five years (from the beginning of publicly available services) to reach 30 million. Other communication technologies were embraced by the masses relatively slowly. To accommodate this rapid uptake, network providers are considering pricing policies that discriminate between voice and data. This will be important soon when a set-top box can deliver voice, data and video over a single network. Some traffic will have higher priority. A phone conversation has to take place in real time. A video postcard need not be delivered instantly.

Tutorials on Net telephony covered coding and voice compression, echo cancellation, call control and signalling methodologies. The emphasis was on speed, with papers on the design of fast Asynchronous Transfer Mode routers and on special hardware for IP (Internet Protocol) networks which looks up addresses more quickly. Cable modem technology is shaping up to bring broadband services to the home, as more manufacturers adopt the MCNS standard.

A notable announcement was the Avici Terabit Switch/Router developed by Stanford University and Avici Systems. This extensible high-speed router (based on a 3D torus multicomputer network with 9.6 gigabit/s channels) is more future-proof than existing routers, proving that some of the hottest interconnects are still created by academic brains.

Reza Sotudeh is Sony Professor of Computer Engineering, University of Teesside.

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