It's a shame that despite the buzz surrounding Live 8 over the past few weeks, we haven't heard more of the old Mick Jagger and David Bowie duet from the first Live Aid concert. It's not just that it's a great song: It's a great message for "da yoof." The summer's here, and the time is right for dancing in the streets. So get out there right away, kids, start dancing, and quit spending your vacation watching streaming videos of Green Day and U2 in concert. 'Cause you're dragging down the neighborhood bandwidth. My own video watching has slowed from a stream to a trickle. We may have more bandwidth now than we did in 1985, but that's not stopping the flashbacks to the days of the 1,200bps modem. So how's an aging rock fan going to read all the Live 8 blogs and get a latter-day Buzzcocks fix from the streaming video of Green Day's performance in Berlin? Here are some suggestions.
Speed of life
If you're going to speed up access on a narrow data pipe, you need as many tricks up your sleeve as you can get. The quickest of quick fixes is to pick the right browser. Mozilla Firefox loads really long pages faster than Internet Explorer, for example. IE hangs around until it has collected more data to display, but Firefox will slap up the first couple of screens' worth so that you can get started, and it fills in the rest of a long page as you scan the opening portion. The latest version of Adobe Acrobat Reader (7.0.2) loads Acrobat files faster than previous versions, too.
But this latter trick helps only if you tend to look at a lot of doctoral theses and other long, text-heavy pages. It won't help with graphics-heavy pages, streaming media, or the like. For these, you need to look into the world of Web accelerators: products and services designed to optimize the narrow bandwidth available to you. They fall into two basic types, both of which you can get from third-party vendors and bolt on to your existing Internet-access account. Or if you're shopping for faster dial-up service, you can subscribe to NetZero's 3G service, which wraps several acceleration tricks into a $15-per-month dial-up account.
The most dramatic technique for accelerating a Net connection involves data compression.
Get in the carpool lane
The most dramatic technique for accelerating a Net connection involves data compression. Cell phone companies often provide such services when you get an AirCard account, but regular broadband and dial-up customers can rent third-party services to do the same. One of them, Rev The Web, even offers a free ad-supported acceleration service for those who don't want to pay the regular $3 per month.
These services all work pretty much the same: they put decompression software on your computer and compress all the Web pages you visit before they start their way across the connection between you and your ISP. This means fewer bits need to come across the pipe, so it all goes faster. It's a bit like using a carpool lane: it's on the same highway, but there's less congestion because there's less wasted space.
To do this, of course, Web acceleration services need to control the server that sends you the Web pages. So they maintain a data center of servers that compress popular pages into a cache and serve them up at will. Or if you ask for pages that aren't in the server's cache, it gets them, compresses them on the fly, then serves them out to you.
Pages can be served up dramatically faster this way. Heck, NetZero boasts that its accelerated service offers broadbandlike speeds from dial-up connections, and while there's always some exaggeration in advertising, there's a core of truth to it. But there are a few downsides to this approach. It takes some time to compress and decompress the data you're looking at. If compression can scrunch a graphics-heavy Web page to a tenth of its original size, you'll gain back all that lost time and a lot more, but you may not get such dramatic results on all the pages you visit. And in some cases, you'll notice a loss of quality in pictures and other online media.
Some folk dislike the idea of their Web traffic filtering through a proxy server. It's not hard to imagine that compression duties might overload such a server and actually slow down the connection. And if the pipes going into and out of the server get clogged with enough traffic, that could also slow things down. In addition, some people fear that a proxy server will compromise their privacy.
Naturally, the companies that operate these services deny that this ever happens to their customers. Rev The Web, for example, claims that it multithreads its operations so that they don't drag down the performance of its servers, which are connected to low-latency pipes near the Internet backbone. All of these factors combine to reduce the lag time between a browser's requesting a Web page and having it served up.
As for issues of privacy, these too are exaggerated. As long as the company that provides the acceleration service doesn't sell any personally identifying information (before you sign up, check the user agreement for explicit denials of this practice), you're actually afforded some anonymity from the Web at large. Acceleration servers do pass cookies between browsers and content providers if the browser is set to handle cookies, but since they act as proxy servers, they mask the browser's IP address from the content provider.
And as for the notion that acceleration servers intercept financial transactions, forget it. If there's an https:// in front of the URL, there's a protected tunnel of security between you and the content provider's secure servers. The acceleration servers don't see a thing. And of course, over such connections, they don't compress a thing either.
As long as the company that provides the acceleration service doesn't sell any personally identifying information, you're afforded some anonymity from the Web at large.
Tune the engine
A less invasive approach to accelerating your connection doesn't involve expensive compression servers and extra jumps for your data. It's cheaper, less invasive, and somewhat less dramatically effective, but it's a worthwhile technique nonetheless. It's the approach taken by WebRocket and the more advanced ActiveSpeed by Ascentive, and it's often described (sometimes derisively) as tweaking.
Your experience of visiting a Web site involves loading browsers, entering URLs, downloading files, and watching paint dry on the screen. Behind the scenes, your operating system is throwing around packets of data with address markers at the beginning and end, each assigned an expiration time. If the data doesn't arrive by the expiration time, your computer asks for it again. This approach involves a lot of time-wasting, but that's how all networking works. Your network settings are probably tuned to something useful for general-purpose Internet access, but they don't take into account that loading Web pages, streaming media, and downloading files have different sweet spots for each network setting. It might be more efficient to download large files with larger packet sizes and a longer Time To Live (TTL) value, for example, than you'd need for general-purpose browsing. Tweakers adjust your network settings to fit whatever you're doing at the time.
It's a neat trick when it works, and on my test systems this past couple of weeks, ActiveSpeed has worked fine. The streaming video from Live 8 has been sharp and clear, which is more than you can say for most of the participants. A mulletless Bono looks 20 years older than he did at Live Aid, and Green Day members look 20 years older than they did on the Dookie tour. Only McCartney hasn't changed at all. So I'm using my extra bandwidth to Google the Webcam that's pointing at the portrait in his attic.
How should Matt Lake burn up the wires this summer? Give him your Web acceleration tips in the TalkBack section below.