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The return of sneakernet

Incredibly, sneakernet has returned. And this time it has a lot of help from the latest in storage technologies.

Incredibly, sneakernet has returned. And this time it has a lot of help from the latest in storage technologies. Who'd a thunk it?

What is sneakernet? If you must ask then you must be under-30 or from a very wealthy corporation. Sneakernet was the somewhat derisive term for the practice of moving data around with diskettes or other relatively low-density media. In other words, you copied stuff on one computer to a diskette or tape, and walked it down the hallway (whilst wearing sneakers apparently), and loaded it onto another computer. This was necessary in the "bad ol' days" because many computers weren't inter-connected. Or if they were, it was easier to use the diskette for all the complexity of working the appropriate network tools.

So, just when networking was supposedly becoming ubiquitous and pervasive, sneakernet is making a serious comeback. No, seriously!

Consider the now-ubiquitous USB thumb drive -- a reasonably large chunk of flash memory that connects to a computer faster than you can insert a diskette (and physically smaller too). Whereas the typical diskette was pretty limited at around 1 Mb, thumb drives offering 64 Mb are available for the price of dinner. And, though more costly, they are available as large as 1 GB. Most professionals have at least one. And they are using them to move data around. Quickly. Easily. Transparently.

Sneakernet. Because it is faster and more efficient than using the networks in many situations. But that's not the end of it.

The iPod has arrived -- and it turns out it isn't just gimmick. Having sold some 10 million units in the last three years (compared to 3 million Sony walkmans when they first hit the markets), it is clear that the iPod has answered a clear need. And, it's more than just another way to play music.

Recently, I listened to a friend tell me how his iPod had changed his life. Like everyone, he has ripped every music CD he owns to MP3 -- not so much so he can listen while walking down the street -- but so he can quickly and easily find his music since his kids keep mixing up the CDs. Now he moves his music, from his expensive stereo system at home, to his car which has the new iPod jack, to his desk in the iBoom and around town as he walks.

This is no real surprise, of course. But consider the following: All he is doing is moving data -- very fast and very efficiently. And he is moving a lot of it. Up to 80 GB. The plug-and-play nature of the technology means that, even if there were a network-based solution (satellite radio?), it wouldn't stand a chance in this context. He has what he wants, the way he wants it, where and when he wants it. Simple. Fast. Easy. And no on going costs either.

Next, consider the story of OsiriX, software developed by two radiologists to convert the iPod into a plug-and-play storage device for medical imaging. As commented on by one of the developers:

"One day I realized, I have an iPod that has 40 GB of storage on it. It's twice as big as my disk on my laptop, and I'm using only 10 percent of it for my music. So why don't I use it as a hard disk for storing medical images?"

The obvious question is: Why does anyone need a 40 GB storage device to sling data around? Why doesn't the network address that need?

And finally, one step beyond that: Biochemists, high energy physicists, astronomers, geologists, meteorologists, geneticists and other researchers all routinely move terabytes of data around the planet. Some of the grand challenges of high-performance networking, such as the Internet2 Landspeed Record events, are powered by researchers looking to move more data further over the fastest networks on the planet -- the current record from January 2005 sets the sustained transfer rate at 5.11 Gbps over a distance of 14,134 kilometers. That attempt moved a third of terabyte over a trans-oceanic link in 10 minutes.

An amazing accomplishment -- and very much worth doing. But it can't be done very easily. Certainly, not reliably. Setting up the proper connections, configuring and optimizing the end stations and completing the transfer can be very expensive from a resource stand-point. At a recent high-performance networking conference, researchers noted that moving several terabytes of data across the ocean was still most efficiently and reliably realized by putting tapes on an airplane.


It hasn't gone away. It has just gotten better. Way better. If it is more cost-effective, or easier, or faster, OR MORE SECURE than working through the intricacies of using the network, you can bet that someone will use it. They will want to use it. They will demand to use it.

Of course sneakernet, whether supported or not within your network, poses challenges that need to be carefully considered. For example, the physical device requires its own kind of security -- biometrics immediately comes to mind -- because it is so mobile. Thus, if you are specifically not supporting sneakernet, you should consider securing your network against its casual use. And that's another topic altogether.

How good is your Sneakernet?

OsiriX article
Internet2 Landspeed Record
iPod vs. Walkman article

NetworkingChief Scientist for Apparent Networks, Loki Jorgenson, PhD, has been active in computation, physics and mathematics, scientific visualization, and simulation for over 18 years. Trained in computational physics at Queen's and McGill universities, he has published in areas as diverse as philosophy, graphics, educational technologies, statistical mechanics, logic and number theory. Also, he acts as Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Simon Fraser University where he co-founded the Center for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics (CECM). He has headed research in numerous academic projects from high-performance computing to digital publishing, working closely with private sector partners and government. At Apparent Networks Inc., Jorgenson leads network research in high performance, wireless, VoIP and other application performance, typically through practical collaboration with academic organizations and other thought leaders such as BCnet, Texas A&M, CANARIE, and Internet2.
This was last published in May 2005

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