Paul Baran, Network Theory, and the Past, Present, and Future of Internet
Colorado Technology Law Journal, Vol. 17, P. 161, 2018
26 Pages Posted: 18 Jan 2019 Last revised: 14 May 2021
Date Written: 2018
Paul Baran’s seminal 1964 article “On Distributed Communications Networks” that first proposed packet switching also advanced an underappreciated vision of network architecture: a lattice-like, distributed network, in which each node of the Internet would be homogeneous and equal in status to all other nodes. Scholars who have subsequently embraced the concept of a lattice-like network approach have largely overlooked the extent to which it is both inconsistent with network theory (associated with the work of Duncan Watts and Albert-László Barabási), which emphasizes the importance of short cuts and hubs in enabling networks to scale, and the actual way, the Internet initially deployed, which relied on a three-tiered, hierarchical architecture that was actually what Baran called a decentralized network. However, empirical studies reveal that the Internet’s architecture is changing: it is in the process of becoming flatter and less hierarchical, as large content providers build extensive wide area networks and undersea cables to connect directly to last-mile networks. This change is making the network more centralized rather than becoming more distributed. As a result, this article suggests that the standard reference model that places backbones at the center of the architecture should be replaced with a radically different vision: a stack of centralized star networks, each centered on one of the leading content providers.
Keywords: Distributed networks, network architecture, communications networks, internet architecture, hierarchical architecture, decentralized networks, internet history, network flattening, network centralization, Cold War, communications infrastructure, network security
JEL Classification: L86, O33
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation