The recent unrest in Egypt and turmoil in Tunisia and Iran have clearly demonstrated the vulnerability of the Internet: it can be shut down at a moment’s notice by a government under political pressure from its populace, writes Martin May, regional director Enterasys Networks.
In all three countries, the use of social media contributed to the visibility and tempo of the public protests – and blackouts followed as government lackeys rushed to stop vital information from reaching protestors and to prevent protestors communicating with each other.
According to reports, Egypt’s five-day Internet "switch-off" inflicted considerable damage to the economy. The same must be true of the other countries involved.
Unfortunately, it is not only puppet dictators of rogue states in danger of an Egyptian-style overthrow who now have Internet kill switches within closer reach than their semi-automatics.
The US government is fashioning a kill switch of its own in the form of the Protecting Cyberspace as a National Asset Act. Should it be voted into law, the Act will give the president the power to cut Internet access through a new agency to be called the National Centre for Cybersecurity and Communications.
Many Internet protagonists still maintain that the Internet cannot be shut down effectively. But this was true in the days of the original peer-to-peer architecture of the first-generation Internet in the early 1980s which the US Defence Department designed to be resilient even to nuclear attack.
In those days, the Internet would automatically reroute itself through accessible nodes. Today, however – as Egyptians soon learned – the huge backbones that feed Internet service providers can be very effectively plugged.
Will governments’ ability to control or even shut down the Internet cause concern among businesses looking to increase their exposure to Internet-based computing or what has gained popular currency as "cloud computing"? Up to now, cloud computing has been one of the fastest growing trends in business.
The cloud offers organisations the opportunity to save money by sharing resources, software and applications through an Internet- or cloud-based service provider. Organisations then "consume" services, much as they would consume water or electricity supplied by a public utility company – on a pay-as-you-go, pay-as-you-store basis.
For users, a key benefit of cloud computing is the elimination of the need for any form of ownership or control over the technology infrastructures that support the applications they use. Press reports say the Internet kill switch concept is already hurting cloud computing. This may be overstating the situation. Perhaps the euphoria over the cloud may settle in the wake of the Egyptian uprising.
But like any new concept whose time has come, it will find ways of overcoming the spectre of the kill switch. One of the best solutions is to adopt a "hybrid" approach to cloud computing. In order to grasp this idea, it’s important to understand the distinction between a privately managed cloud and a publically managed cloud.
The private cloud comprises centrally managed, distributed infrastructure services that an organisation itself is able to control using technology from a service provider. A publically managed cloud, on the other hand, relies on centrally managed, distributed infrastructure services from third-party companies like Amazon, and platform services from Microsoft Azure, Google and others.
Private clouds are deployments made inside an organisation’s firewall – usually from on-site data centres. Public clouds are deployments from providers who take complete responsibility for managing and securing an organisation’s entire infrastructure. At issue here is whether cloud computing is seen as an operational model (public cloud) or as an evolution of existing virtualisation technologies (private cloud).
While many organisations have been rushing headlong to embrace the public cloud, the idea of an Internet kill switch is spurring changes in this thinking, and a re-focus on the private cloud or even a federated or hybrid cloud – a mix of the two – as a solution to mitigate against a government-inspired Internet lockdown.
A hybrid cloud would deliver the the best of both worlds, in which the controls are provided by an inhouse data centre (untouchable by kill-switch-happy government officials) and the low cost and flexibility benefits provided by a public cloud. Already mechanisms are in place to allow users to simply drag-and-drop applications, storage and servers between them.
Probably the most important implication of the Internet kill switch is the impetus it will give developers of application-independent smartphones – such as the iPhone – with their "access anything at anytime from anywhere" functionality.
Today’s smartphone is already able to manage social media, handle e-mail, tackle business-based communications and access the cloud for conference calls, video conferencing and data storage.
Users can employ their smartphones for crucial business communications using either application information in the private, corporate cloud (via their own communication links and multiple Internet access methods), or allow cost-savings on non-essential services to be managed by others in the public cloud.
So while we might not be able to disable the Internet kill switch – which, over time, will become a gradually less-important fixture in the minds of most decision-makers – technology will soon be able to obviate the switch and continue to optimise the benefits of the Internet via the cloud – but now as a hybrid version.