FIBER LEADS in performance improvements. The number of bits a second (a measure of fiber performance) doubles every nine months for every dollar spent on the technology. In contrast, the doubling time for the number of transistors on a computer chip occurs every 18 months¿a trend known as Moore¿s law. Over a five-year period, optical technology far outpaces silicon chips and data storage. Image: Graph By CLEO VILETT, SOURCE: Vined Khoslan, Kleiner, Caufield and Perkins.
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Was it Britney Spears or Fatboy Slim? The network administrators at Kent State University had not a clue. All they did know last February was that "Rockefeller Skank" and hundreds of other downloading hits had gotten intermingled with e-mails from the provost and research data on genetic engineering of E. coli bacteria. The university network slowed to a crawl, triggering a decision to block access to Napster, the music file-sharing utility.
As demand for network capacity soars, the Napster craze may mark only the opening of the first of many floodgates. Venture capitalists, in fact, have wagered billions of dollars on technologies that may help telecommunications companies counter the prospect that a video Napster capable of downloading anything from Birth of a Nation to Rocky IV might bring down the entire Internet.
PowerPoint slides at industry conferences emphasize why the deluge is yet to come. Video Napster is just one hypothesis. A trillion bits a second--the average traffic on the Internet's backbones, its heaviest links--may fulfill less than a thousandth of future requirements. Online virtual reality could overwhelm the backbones with up to 10 petabits a second, 10,000 times more than today's traffic. (A petabit is a quadrillion bits, a one with 15 trailing zeros.) Computers that share one another's computing power across the network--what is called metacomputing--might require 200 petabits.
This article was originally published with the title The Triumph of the Light.