January 29, 2009
Google hosts performance-measurement tools
on servers in the U.S. and Europe
Want to know if you’re actually getting what you’re paying your Internet service provider for?
If you are, join the club. The problem is that it it has been far from easy to get a handle on how your service provider deals with various kinds of traffic. That may become an easier job now that Google Inc. is launching what it calls Measurement Lab (M-Lab), an open system that researchers and consumers can use to access its new Internet performance measurement tools.
“Researchers are already developing tools that allow users to, among other things, measure the speed of their connections, run diagnostics, and attempt to discern if their ISP is blocking or throttling particular applications,” said Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist, and Stephen Stuart, Google’s principal engineer, in a blog post. “These tools generate and send some data back and forth between the user’s computer and a server elsewhere on the Internet. Unfortunately, researchers lack widely-distributed servers with ample connectivity. This poses a barrier to the accuracy and scalability of these tools.”
To tackle the problem, Google announced late on Wednesday that it will host the tools on 37 servers in the U.S. and Europe. The tools are designed to help users try to figure out what might be impairing their broadband speed, as well as find out if BitTorrent is being blocked or throttled by their Internet service providers.
“Seems like the intention behind this is to give consumers a way to keep tabs on their provider and make sure that they’re getting what they’re paying for in terms of speed,” said Dan Olds, an analyst at Gabriel Consulting Group Inc. “Also, with these tools, consumers will supposedly be able to tell if particular high-bandwidth applications, like BitTorrent, are being constrained by their ISP. So if an ISP is limiting video downloads, for example, consumers can use the Google tool, figure it out and start a huge outcry, putting pressure on the ISP to stop.”
Just last month, an analyst with ties to the telecommunications industry released a report calling Google a bandwidth hog. Scott Cleland, president of Precursor LLC, a research firm bankrolled by telecommunications heavyweights such as AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc., reported that Google uses 21 times more bandwidth than it pays for.
Google was quick to fire back. Richard Whitt, Google’s Washington telecommunications and media counsel, noted in a blog post that Cleland is “not exactly a neutral party.” Whitt also claimed that the analyst had made methodological and factual errors.
Olds noted that the new measurement platform is another salvo in the war between content providers such as Google and network providers.
“This Google tool is a way for consumers to keep their providers honest, but it also serves to further Google’s interest in keeping bandwidth limits at bay,” he added. “This gives consumers a way to pressure ISPs who try to limit individual bandwidth — like secretly limiting your account because you download 10 movies a day and giving me my full bandwidth because I don’t. There’s only so much bandwidth to go around. They can either build more capacity, which they hate to do, or try to put limits on the extreme high users.”
Stuart and Cerf noted in their blog post that all the data collected via M-Lab will be made publicly available for other researchers to build on. Google is working on the project with the New America Foundation’s Open Technology Institute, the PlanetLab Consortium and academic researchers, according to the company.
“No matter your views on Net neutrality and ISP network management practices, everyone can agree that Internet users deserve to be well-informed about what they’re getting when they sign up for broadband, and good data is the bedrock of sound policy,” wrote Cerf and Stuart. “Transparency has always been crucial to the success of the Internet, and by advancing network research in this area, M-Lab aims to help sustain a healthy, innovative Internet.”