Sneakernet is Alwas Faster

Recently a friend forwarded me this quote:

This just in, man walking is faster than FIOS! Earlier today a man walked across the street with a 1TB hard drive, at the same time he transferred the file using Verizon FIOS. The fios managed only 1% by the time the man had made it across the street.

I was one of those copy and paste forwards without source attribution, so I can’t really say if this was a real anecdote, a joke or a jab at Verizon for sucking at bandwidth. The message was sent with the subject “FiOS loses to a pedestrian” which I think was suppose to evoke shock, amusement and disbelief. Of course it only works that way if you are clueless.

I can clearly see how a regular person could read the headline and go “no way!” and be amused after reading the short text. On one hand, FiOS has reputation of being blindingly fast. On the other hand everyone had an experience with sending large files over the internet taking forever and a half. Juxtaposing the two forces the reader to hold these two contradictory notions in mind at the same time making ones original assumptions about FiOS speed seem exaggerated.

That’s if you are clueless though. If you do posses some clue, you will know that sneakernet has always been and still is the fastest way of transmuting data. Note that I said fastest – it’s definitely not the most convenient, cost efficient or practical one. But it is fastest.

I mean think about it. On FiOS you can theoretically upload data as fast as 20 MBps. But since FiOS is a best-effort type network you will likely be running much below that. You are also limited by the destination’s download speed. So even if you can send the data at full 20MBps the recipient may only have 6MBps download bandwidth to work with. Sending 1TB will take forever.

Using sneakernet however is different because the bandwidth is almost infinitely scalable. You are almost always sending all of the data in a single batch at rather modest speeds. These days you can carry 1TB in your pocket. If you have to transfer few hundred of terabytes you can take a wheel barrel or load the drives into your car. So our bandwidth is limited only by how fast we can move the data from one location to the other. If you keep the distance and velocity constant then the bandwidth will grow proportionally to the amount of data you are sending. That is a unique property of sneakernet and we can’t really hope to ever match it. Digital networks simply do not work that way.

In other words, there will always be some large quantity for which sneakernet will be faster than the best available high bandwidth network. So I 40 years I will be able to take that quote above, replace FiOS with the equivalent service, increase the 1TB value by two or three orders of magnitude and it will evoke the exact same response as it does today.

So keep that in mind next time you see something like this. You can’t really compare FiOS to sneakernet. The two are just too different. It’s like comparing sending your friend a postcard and delivering it to him in person. If you mail something you use an established network with it’s own built in overhead. The postcard has to be picked up, sorted, processed, routed to destination and then delivered. It takes time, but it’s convenient. In person delivery skips all that overhead at the cost of time and effort on your part. Each method has it’s benefits and trade offs.

If I had to transfer 1TB of data across the street, I would strongly consider just walking it over there in person. If I had to transfer that same TB to, say, China I would probably be more inclined toward electronic transfer. You pick the tool that fits the job.

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7 Responses to Sneakernet is Alwas Faster

  1. Ian Clifton UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux says:

    Assuming no packetloss in the above scenario, yes, carrying it by hand would be faster. But what happens if the carrier gets hit by a bus?

    I have FIOS and the one time I tested it I was getting a consistent 20mbps down and 8mbps up. That’s fast enough for me to login to remote servers and use Vim. *shrugs*

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  2. Garrick UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows says:

    This reminds me of an article regarding a company in South Africa that put a carrier pigeon with a 4gb thumb drive verses their local broadband provider.

    “Winston the pigeon took two hours to carry the data 60 miles – in the same time the ADSL had sent 4% of the data. ”

    For large data transfers, my workplace tends to use FedEx to overnight CD’s and DVD across the globe. That is much faster, more reliable, and usually more secure than file transfers.

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  3. Zel FRANCE Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    Sneakernet ? I never heard this term before, although I used a somewhat similar method some years ago : sending and receiving CDs through mail was cheaper than the huge telephone bills I would have had sending the files through a 56k modem.

    Anyway, the comparison is not valid unless the actual copy time is counted as well. Either the time needed to gather and copy the data on the disk to be simply given to the recipient, or the time to do said copy at the recipient’s home. Just taking the hard drive to a friend’s house across the street won’t do. This may sound negligible, but it’s usually the step that requires the longest time when I exchange files with some nearby friends.

    If it’s possible to cap the storage device’s I/F speed with a given link (which is not that hard even for SATA2 devices, using any optical fiber direct link), Sneakernet actually takes longer since the travel/setup time has to be added to the (optimal in both cases) copy time. It may not be applicable to Verizon’s FiOS, but it can certainly be in local area networks.

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  4. Luke Maciak UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Windows Terminalist says:

    @ Zel:

    Yep, good point. Copying the information to the portable media on which it will be carried should be included in the transfer time. Also, we should probably include the time it takes to copy it back when it reaches the destination.

    I don’t thing the “time to gather” the data should count. After all, you need to gather the data to transfer it over the network as well.

    At that point, it really boils down to what you are using. If you are trying to test Gigabit ethernet link against USB 1.0 drive the network might actually win. If you are trying to test USB 2.0/Firewire against 1.5/756 DSL link on the other hand…

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  5. Tino UNITED STATES Mozilla Firefox Ubuntu Linux Terminalist says:

    Latency is just as important as bandwidth for most Internet applications. One better not look at the ping-time statistics if one wants to get to the conclusion that “FiOS loses to a pedestrian”.

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  6. copperfish Mozilla Firefox Linux Terminalist says:

    @Garrick

    That’s no joke, I live in South Africa and while you can get fast Internet, it will cost you a fortune thanks the the wonders of limited undersea cables and telecoms monopolies. Winston the pigeon became a hero for a while.

    The fastest available connection is 4096kbps ADSL and that will cost you a basic monthly fee of +- $60 without any data. Data will set you back +- $8 for 1GB shaped and +- $14 for an unshaped connection.

    I have a 384kbps uncapped, shaped line and all told it sets me back +- $160 per month.

    Be very grateful you live in a less regulated environment.

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