When the cloud emerged as a concept, it referred to computer services delivered remotely. Bandwidth was cheap, and it made sense to outsource and centralise computing. Physical location, and the physical network, seemed to have become irrelevant. This has turned out not to be true...
Developments like streaming content, the Internet of Things and (soon) driverless cars are pushing the development of “edge computing" - which links the final users and devices to the Internet, and will require masses of cellular network bandwidth.
Meanwhile, those cloud services have burgeoned, and webscale giants like Microsoft, Google and Facebook run system so large they need their own network infrastructure.
The number of users and the amount of data consumed is growing so fast that more than 100,000 km of new cable is laid each year. The cloud giants want to make sure they have their share of that, so they are footing the bill.
Early in 2018, two international cable giants, Aqua Comms and TESubCom teamed up to propose Havfrue, a cable going across the Atlantic, from New Jersey to Ireland and Denmark. The funding comes from a number of companies, including Facebook and Google.
In 2016, Google and Facebook both invested in the Pacific Light Cable Network (PLCN), a cable stretching across the Pacific from Hong Kong to Los Angeles. Built by TESubCom, it should be operational this summer.
Meanwhile, the Marea cable was completed in 2017 , from Bilbao in Spain to Virginia Beach, USA. Microsoft and Facebook each own 25 percent of the cable, the rest belonging to Telxius, a subsidiary of Spain’s Telefonica.
When the cloud players started out, they just rented capacity on existing cables. Why the change? It’s because their sheer scale means the giants have to build the infrastructure.
A new giant data center often needs more electrical power than the local grid can readily provide, so the giants often pay for new generation capacity - usually renewable. For the same reason, webscale players have to foot the bill for new cables. TeleGeography reckons that the world will have spent $9.2bn on international cable projects between 2016 and 2018. These companies are among the few that can pay that kind of money.
It’s also a simple necessity. Amazon, Google and the rest have done a great job of delivering on the promises of cloud computing, but our expectations have risen. We expect near-instant responses from services. We don’t care if they are in Sweden, the UK or Northern Virginia.
The only way the big players can cater to our demands is to own ever more long distance capacity, so they can be sure that the packets used by their service get handled quicker than their rivals.