'Breaking' the internet
Meet Subspace, the ambitious start-up that aims to optimise the internet for real-time services. Natalie Bannerman speaks to its co-founder and CTO, William King, on how the idea for the business came about, and what it means for telcos and the gaming sector
Internet navigation? Online optimisation? Or however you choose to describe it. Subspace, in the words of its co-founder and chief technology officer, William King, is “the Waze of the internet”. For those unfamiliar, Waze is a GPS navigation software app, a subsidiary of Alphabet’s Google, that gives the user real-time, turn-by-turn directions.
“We are taking the internet from what it used to be – which was the equivalent of printing off MapQuest directions or grabbing a map and doing things manually – to the next level. We have made it so that any type of real-time interactive use case can now actually work at a production global level.”
According to King, traditionally companies would have to spend their entire R&D infrastructure budget “just trying to make things barely function”.
“One simplified way to think of us is as a real-time content delivery network (CDN). We are making the internet work for real time.”
Addressing a need
King has a background in coding, a father who was in charge of all the chemical/biological defence for the US government and a grandfather who founded the mineralogy programme for Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). But it was when his own computer was hit by an internet Worm that his journey to founding Subspace began.
“I wanted to dissect it and so I spent two decades reverse-engineering network protocols, working for big companies and solving big real-time problems,” he explains.
Through this process, King recognised a reoccurring problem. “The internet works great if you are trying to build an e-commerce website or something like this. But if you are trying to do something like Reddit or host some different websites, or point-to-point video, nobody has really been able to do that well.”
While he acknowledges the likes of Google Meet and Zoom have “been able to make it work”, it only takes one look at social media platforms and other forums to see that we have all experienced the same shortcomings.
“Everybody has had that same horrendous feeling of the one time we try to convey something in a call and the audio breaks up, or calling up support using VoIP and the agent can’t hear your voice or can’t understand it well.”
Ultimately it boiled down to the same question: “How do you get real-time internet to work, when you can’t all be in the same office?”
During King’s time as CTO of North American telco Flowroute Inc, customers using VoIP would often complain about calls, sometimes coming from the same town, being inaudible When he investigated, King would sometimes find that “the audio would go around the country. Starting from somewhere like Seattle to the East Coast and back and all these other places. I never understood why the internet can’t just work.”
It was then that King and his co-founder and CEO, Bayan Towfiq, decided to work together to optimise internet traffic for the customer.
Acknowledging that there were many reasons not to try to fix the many performance issues of the internet, King says they kept finding solutions and ways of dealing with the old problems.
“The internet service providers aren’t going to do it; they are all competing against each other. The cloud companies don’t want to do it, either, because of all these different conflicts or other problems that exist. They are also worried it will hurt their business if they try and solve this problem, so that’s why we stepped up.”
King says that internet service providers (ISPs) in the wholesale market are partners, recognising that Subspace will not be putting fibre into the ground “and we can’t handle that large volume of capacity that the likes of Netflix drive”.
The value it provides for these crucial companies is to take on those clients that require the critical service and performance from the internet that Subspace provides.
“We can take on those customers – when it’s not working, they will know immediately. They will call multiple times a day until it gets fixed. That really frustrating, hard-to-solve component, that’s our bread and butter.”
The stressful managing of these customers aside, Subspace’s technology means that it can measure everything and offer visibility and granularity to its partners.
“One of the really powerful things about our technology is we are able to measure very small issues and changes,” he says.
“So, when an ISP engineer rolls out a change or an update to a router, we can reach out to the ISP, talk to the network engineer, and speak engineer to engineer and say at this exact minute, this particular router or this IP address had this problem, and be able to provide that within a few minutes of the change going out.”
In King’s words, this real-time network provisioning has “changed the operational cadence for a lot of these ISPs and made it a lot simpler to implement changes without potentially breaking the internet for a lot of people”.
Security and gaming
For all businesses operating at all levels of digitalisation, security is a crucial part of the conversation, but Subspace takes a unique view on how to fortify its attack surface. The answer? Think about it like Lego bricks.
“The current system is like a lot of Legos that are put together,” says King.
“A lot of systems have essentially glued all those Legos together and looked at it as one big thing and said: how do we protect it? What Subspace does is to break those pieces apart, and give you solutions that say, this one little piece over here is what’s causing half of the risk for the entire project. So, let’s put the effort where the actual security needs to be.”
One of the biggest use cases for the Subspace community is that of gaming, an industry that is in its roots, according to the company’s website. Solutions such as its PacketAccelerator, which enables users to move their traffic into the fast lane through intelligent routing systems on a global scale, make it ideal for enhancing applications such as multi-player games or voice applications.
“Subspace is there to help any gamer who has ping problems. If ping is your concern, Subspace should be your question,” says King.
But beyond its technical support, Subspace is also helping some of the more traditional telcos through the gaming revolution and the cultural shift that needs to occur.
“There are telcos who are kind of like tech companies and are really driving forward and able to move really quickly. But the vast majority of infrastructure isn’t operated and run by companies who have that culture,” says King.
“It can be challenging, but we explain that we can interact and partner with anybody on that cultural spectrum.”
But Subspace has different partnership values across the board, ranging from the most tech-based ones – where it can provide data, precision and things of that nature – all the way up to a more hands-on approach where the company deploys a few servers wherever the telcos have equipment, and then Subspace can operate a CaaS service, making them look and feel like a CDN.
On the topic of new technologies King has his eyes on for Subspace, he says “5G is incredible”, though he accepts that it is somewhat “over-hyped and over-marketed, for what it’s actually doing”.
“5G has done a good job of reducing the radio access network latency. That’s going to do a lot for the gaming industry: with 4G you had more than 100 milliseconds, just between your cell phone and the tower; now that gets reduced to about 20 milliseconds.”
“That is going to have a huge impact, because it’s going to mean the game developers, who are only dealing with the console or PC, can now do interactive stuff on mobile.”
Conversely, King says, 5G also creates a few obstacles for operators, because “you have got to deal with the number of routes on your routers” and as a result of the increasing complexity that goes with that.
Quantum computing is an interesting technology for King and is something he’s very excited about, owing to the very nature of what Subspace does and the way quantum can help it optimise its operations.
“Subspace is solving the traveling salesman and optimisation problem, from every single city ISP combination to every single other one on the entire planet.
“And we are trying to do that live, to the last second; in other words, we are dealing with the current internet weather, so that gamers are able to play. That’s not something that classical computers are really good at solving but it’s something that quantum systems are incredibly good at solving.”
Admittedly, King has already “poked a few AI and quantum folks”, even going so far as to engage a company called Serverless, “who’s doing wafer-size chips for AI that can hold an entire AI system with terabytes of RAM”.
This means that a single server can crunch a huge amounts of data – the only solution that King sees as keeping up with future internet demand.
Given the way in which Subspace works, you would be forgiven for thinking of their services as that of a private network over the public internet of sorts, a new hybrid alternative.
“We are saying: no matter where your agents are if you are a call centre, where your gamers are if you are a game company – or any of these different pieces – Subspace can kind of be your private network for hire.”
According to King, there were some gaming companies, such as Riot Games for League of Legends, that resorted to building their own backbones and private networks, because it was clear that there wasn’t a commercial offering, so they had to do it themselves.
“It was a huge amount of money and duplicated effort to ensure they had a solid network that actually worked globally,” he says.
Interestingly, King assures me that Subspace, unlike the OTTs and content players, has no intention of owning infrastructure, as it is interested in the top layer of the network.
“Subspace as a platform is about 20% hardware and about 80% software,” he says. “At most, we have had to deploy equipment in places simply because what was already there was set up for the internet of early 2000s and a simple upgrade wouldn’t do.
“I don’t think it makes sense for Subspace to try and go any lower because there are already incredible companies who are able to build the business and manage that stuff way better than we can.”
Future game plan
One thing he does admit is that through Subspace’s overview of internet routing and traffic, he can see clearly gaps where new cable infrastructure is needed.
“For example, in gaming let’s look at the Portuguese language. You have people in Portugal and Brazil, and there’s not a good path for those two to be able to play,” he explains.
“They speak the same language, but they have to go all the way through somewhere like Washington DC or Miami and down, or have to speak Spanish, English or French on the European continent to get the path they need.”
Such internet visibility also means that Subspace had a front-row seat for the data spikes that occurred as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.
“We started seeing in early Q1, before everything started shutting down, that gaming profiles were changing. More people were gaming throughout the day, rather than a really big spike when everyone got home and started gaming through the evening. It was more gradualised throughout the whole day and the volume was going up significantly.”
Gaming aside, Subspace also saw a wave of congestion as internet traffic patterns started to change.
“Rather than everyone accessing all these work emails and VPN in the office, it started messing with how the internet traffic was working and a lot of ISPs ran into major problems,” King says. “So, in those first few months the internet traffic patterns changed fundamentally – but, owing to restrictions, nobody could actually do anything to adjust to it. We saw a decade’s worth of adoption curve compressed into about three months.”
Aside from his overarching message that the internet can and will be fixed, King’s focus for the company is on serving the small to medium-sized games companies, as before this it was mostly the large-scale publishers on its books.
“We looked at it and said we just didn’t have a lot of the functionality that many of the medium-sized or small games companies who desperately need our type of service required, so we wouldn’t be able to serve them. Over the last six months we have been retooling and building those components to be able to broaden access.”
As such, the next 12 months is dedicated to scaling up to handle that demand and then “onboarding those use cases”.
Soon, Subspace is to release its network-as-a-service platform for developers to accelerate their internet application on Subspace’s dedicated network. Interested application developers can get on the waitlist over at Subspace.com.