The Most Important Number

Photo of audience laughing

How many shows do you do in a year?

As an entertainer, I am often asked that question.

My off-the-cuff answer? I have no idea. And I don’t care.

Let me explain. I don’t like numbers.

You might find that a bit odd, because I am an electrical engineer by training. The classic stereotype of an engineer is an introvert who loves numbers and hates people.

I hate numbers and love people.

For much of my career I worked in data center operations: specifically, network operations. If you think engineers love numbers, operations folks take that to a whole other level. They live by numbers. Especially people in network operations.

I was surrounded by people who loved numbers.

Our job was almost entirely about numbers. Yet, still, I didn’t care. I cared about the people.

Numbers are boring. People are fun.

When I went to meetings where I knew I’d be drilled about the numbers, I would take other people with me who could answer those questions.

Some of my higher-ups were OK with that. Others, not so much.

At least in that context, the numbers were relevant to our jobs.

Let’s say you are at the grocery store. You’ve filled your cart and you are ready to check out. Do you care how many people the cashier serves during their shift?

It might be an interesting side note. But, what do you really care about at that moment?

  • How quickly you are going to get through the line.
  • Are you going to make it out of the store and home before your ice cream starts to melt?
  • Will they put your bread on top of the bag, or bury it beneath heavy cans again like the last time?

The number of how many other people have gone through that particular checkout line is irrelevant to your personal experience when it is your turn.

When you go to a doctor, do you care how many patients he or she sees in a day? Again, you might consider that question while you are waiting. But, what do you care about?

Right. You.

Having the doctor’s total, dedicated, focused attention on you.

The only number that matters is the number ONE.

How many shows do you do in a year? It doesn’t matter.

The only show that matters is THIS ONE, right here, right now.

I also don’t care how many people are in the audience.

I care about the ONE person I can see who is having a good time. The ONE person who really needed to laugh.

That ONE person is why I am there.

Numbers can be important. I am glad there are people who care about numbers, love numbers, and deal with numbers.

For me, the most important number is the number ONE.

Net Neutrality – Part 2

Before proceeding, be sure you’ve read my first post on Net Neutrality. Done?  OK.

Net Neutrality Image

Part 2.

I’m going to use a really simplistic analogy to explain what’s happening on the Internet and what brought about the need for Net Neutrality.

GEEK WARNING: As in part 1, I warn my more technically knowledgeable readers that I am going to greatly oversimplify things here. If you have a way to explain this in words that non-technical-geniuses can understand, go for it.

Analogy #1 – The Highway System:

Since so many people refer to the Internet as “The information superhighway”, I have to use this analogy.

When the Internet was created, it was designed as a transport mechanism with equal access. All bits were created equal. No matter what type of data you transmit, it is to be relayed and carried the same as all other types of data.

If you think of our nation’s highway system, you can drive any brand or color of vehicle on the highway that you want. Car, truck, motorcycle, red, white, black, all are treated the same. I know, being stuck behind a big old broken down RV going up a big hill is annoying, but you get the point.

On the US Interstate highway system, there are 3 basic components: On-ramps, Off-ramps, and the highway. For the sake of discussion, let’s assume the highway itself has infinite capacity. Obviously, that’s not true of the Internet, anymore than it is of I-95 around our nation’s capital. But, stay with me here.

With this assumption, the only limitations are the size (capacity) of the on-ramp to get data onto the highway, and the size of the off-ramp, to get data off.

When we talk about companies and individuals paying for the Internet, by and large we are talking about paying for the size of your on-ramp and/or off-ramp. For now, we are going to ignore the highway itself (the Internet backbone).

Content providers such as web sites (Facebook, AOL, Yahoo!, etc.) and streaming media providers (Hulu, Netflix, etc.) pay for on-ramps. How much they pay depends primarily on the amount of data that they are sending to the highway via their on-ramps.

Consumers pay for off-ramps, again based on the amount of data they pull off the highway.

[Side note: Although not always the case, on-ramps and off-ramps are typically priced based on their maximum capacity, not the amount of data actually traversing them. Essentially, you are paying to put data onto the Internet, or to take it off.]

Where this gets tricky is that we, the end user consumer, don’t live on the off-ramp. We live in neighborhoods fed by the off-ramp. Your ISP (cable, DSL, telelcom, etc.) manages the off-ramp. The ISP acts as a middle-man to the Internet backbones, aka the highway.

What makes Net Neutrality of interest is that the ISPs are getting tired of moving large amounts of traffic across their off-ramps from certain high-volume content providers. Those providers (Netflix is only one, but the most often mentioned), have created a demand for their content that is exceeding the ISP’s off-ramp capacity.

That leaves the ISPs with a challenge. How do they pay for the work it will take to increase the capacity of their off-ramp?

The easiest way is for them to charge the end users based on the amount of data that they consume.  Another way is that they can charge users based on the TYPE of traffic/data they are consuming. And that is the root issue behind Net Neutrality.

Again, to make this simple, let’s say Netflix is the red cars coming off the highway. MegaCable Off-Ramp Services (MORS) notices an unusually high percentage of the cars using their off-ramp are red. There are so many red cars that other cars are having trouble getting off the highway.

Now MORS has a choice. Do they increase the capacity of their off-ramp, which is going to cost them money?  Do they just let the cars coming off the ramp fight it out, and whoever gets through wins?  Or, do they start limiting how many red cars are allowed to use their off-ramp.

What started happening was that ISPs were taking that third option. Some were actively limiting traffic on their off-ramps based on the type of data (limiting red cars, for example). Others were getting ready to do so.

Unfortunately, the customers, the end users who are paying to be fed by that off-ramp, want red cars. And they want lots of them.

And there you have it. The root of the issue.

Net Neutrality says that ISPs cannot limit the flow of cars across their off-ramp based on the color of the car.

Any questions?


Net Neutrality

There has been a lot of talk about Net Neutrality lately and people are finally waking up and taking the topic seriously. Unfortunately, there is an enormous amount of misinformation circulating. Some of that is intentional, some of it is simply a lack of understanding on the topic. And some of it is because, as with many issues of this nature, the term itself has changed over time such that nobody fully understands what it means anymore.

Net Neutrality Image

I’m going to take a crack at it anyway.

Many years ago, back when I was heavily involved in network operations for a major player in the Internet world, I sat on an international industry council whose purpose was to discuss and develop new models of operations for the global Internet. It was a pretty cool experience and somewhat humbling to be part of such an august group of very smart people from all around the world.

WARNING: I am going to greatly oversimplify some very deep technical concepts. I apologize in advance to my more technically astute readers.

As the work of this council progressed, it became more and more driven by the desires of a small number of large telecom providers who were members. To oversimplify the main topic of discussion at that time, the council set out to create new standards that would enable QOS across carriers. While ultimately the motivation of the carriers was to make more money, they were trying to do this by finding a way to get heavy users of the Internet to pay more for their usage.

QOS = Quality Of Service.

QOS is a way of prioritizing data moving across a data network. Using QOS can be a useful tool in making high priority applications operate correctly. But, there is a big problem with it.

Many people think of QOS as a way to get their data to move across the network faster. And, in a way, that is correct. But, it’s not that simple.

A data network connection has a fixed maximum speed. All data traversing the network share that path and essentially take turns sending packets of data.

QOS does not work by making data move faster. A given network connection has a physical maximum capacity. No, QOS works by allowing certain types of data to be treated with higher priority than others. Often, this means ignoring lower priority data, or worse, actually discarding it.

So, QOS does not make high priority traffic move faster. It makes lower priority traffic move slower, thus providing a clearer path for the higher priority traffic.

There is a bit of an analogy, albeit a crude one, with express lanes on a crowded highway.  It’s all fine and dandy if you have access to the express lanes. But, if you don’t, you get bogged down crawling along with everyone else.

Perhaps a better analogy is the FastPass at Disney and other theme parks. The overall rate at which riders can be loaded onto the ride is fixed. But, if you have a FastPass, you get to skip to the head of the line. Again, great if you paid that extra price, but for everyone else? Really annoying. Especially if it’s late in the day and despite waiting for over an hour, the ride closes before you get your turn.

OK, so I can hear the voice in your head. Shouldn’t I be able to pay more if I want faster network delivery? Shouldn’t those who consume large amounts of network bandwidth pay more for using more?

If only it were that simple. The problem crops up when your Internet provider, let’s call them MegaCable, doesn’t like your content provider. For content delivered across the Internet, MegaCable does not receive any revenue from the content provider, e.g. NetFlix.  Conversely, on a traditional cable TV service, MegaCable does receive revenue from providing you a specific channel of content, e.g. HBO.

You see the problem?

Delivery of NetFlix content to MegaCable Internet customers consumes a large (and ever increasing) amount of the overall bandwidth at MegaCable. In order to continue delivering good service to their customers, MegaCable has to keep increasing the size of their Internet connections. And that costs money. But they get no compensation for this.

What to do?

Simple. MegaCable implements QOS across their delivery network, essentially limiting the amount of bandwidth that can be consumed by NetFlix (in our example). As more customers tune in to the latest edition of House of Cards, or start binge-watching Sons of Anarchy, QOS starts throwing away data, customers see “buffering” issues, frustration increases, etc.

Or, you could simply increase capacity until you have enough that QOS is no longer needed. The question is, who should pay for that extra capacity? Not so simple.

In the beginning, all data traversing the Internet as we know it was treated equally. As we say in the techie world, “bits are bits”. The goal of Net Neutrality, in its original context, was to continue to this equal treatment, giving all types of data equal priority. It was a movement. A campaign to encourage fairness.

The carriers did not listen. They continued down the path of putting limits on certain types of traffic. And now the result is the government getting involved.

Who is right? That is a topic for a later post.

Trust and empowerment

Today I take a slight turn and refer you to the blog posting of one of my former bosses. He captures the essence of what made our work at AOL fun – trust and empowerment.

I can cite numerous examples of the absolute trust my boss(es) placed in me and my team, even in the face of major system outages. It wasn’t just during a crisis that this trust was exhibited. It was evident in every day decision making.

This trust and empowerment permeated throughout the operations organization. Individuals knew they were not only trusted, but EXPECTED to make major decisions and take quick action every day. I feel quite fortunate to have worked at this place at the time that I did.

Here is Joe’s blog.


As you read it, pay attention to the involvement of Joe’s boss and the CEO.

Have you ever experienced work in an environment like this?  How would your current work environment change if this level of deep respect and trust existed?