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The Opte Project and Visualizing the Internet

At its essence, the internet is simply connections between computers in various points of the world. Traceroute (known as traceroute or tracert) is a valuable diagnostic tool allowing users to see the individual servers or “hops” accessed on the way to a given end destination host. This begs the question, could I use this tool to “map” the internet on a ginormous graph?

Barrett Lyon, an entrepreneur and friend of mine, thought this in late 2003 when he founded the Opte Project. As one would imagine, the internet is a prime example of a well-connected, very diverse network. Nodes represent individual servers and hosts, and edges represent the fiber, copper, or other connection between them. The Opte Project serves to mine the internet for these connections, and then graphically display them in a form of art.

The project started as a concept, using the basic tool of traceroute to map paths and identify common nodes. Realizing that this was an immensely large project, Lyon decided that utilizing a couple computers gathering data with traceroute was simply inefficient, and such a process could take decades to complete. In fact, with the rate data is added to the internet, it’s possible such a project would never be complete. He switched to use instead a native routing protocol of the internet itself, Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). BGP is an essential component of not just the internet, but also represents a common challenge of complex networks in general, finding the shortest path from one stop to another among an increasingly connected web of nodes. BGP determines the shortest possible path among reliability, speed, and other factors set by the operating organization. Each node participating in the organization has a table of suitable “next stops” for a given desired route, this allows one node to forward information to another node, and then finally on to the destination node. Lyon’s idea was to obtain a dump of all BGP-created tables in order to accurately depict the internet.

Years later, Lyon still uses this process in order to create internet map “art” every five years, most recently in July of 2015. His current workflow involves a much more powerful computer to collect the data. Given the broad scale of the internet, graphs like these that show everything cannot possibly be used for specific investigation, rather they illustrate the vast connectedness of modern society. The Opte Project is showing just how small our world truly is.

The Opte Project/Barrett Lyon

The Internet 2015 (The Opte Project/Barrett Lyon)

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