May 7, 2021

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A Trippy visualization traces the growth of the Internet since 1997

3 min read


In November 2003, Barrett Lyon, a security researcher, was finishing his studies at California State University, Sacramento, while working full time as a penetration tester – a hacker hired by companies to find weaknesses in their own digital systems. At the start of each job, Lyon would do a basic reconnaissance of the client’s infrastructure: “cas le joint”, as he puts it. He realized that he was essentially refining and repeating a formula to map what the new target network looked like. “This formula ended up being easy to write software, so I just started asking this software to do all of the work for me,” says Lyon.

During a lunch with his colleagues one day, Lyon suggested that he could use his network mapper to draw the entire Internet. “They thought it was pretty funny, so they bet me $ 50 I couldn’t do it,” he says.

What followed was a vast celestial jumble of thin, overlapping lines, stars and branches in a static image that depicted the global internet of the early 2000s. Lyon called the room Opte, and as his colleagues punters were skeptical of the visual rat nests he produced at first, the end product immediately began to attract fans on Slashdot and beyond.

Original Internet map of Opte de Lyon from 2003.

Illustration: Barrett Lyon / The Opte project

Now Opte is back in a whole new updated form. The original version used “traceroutes,” diagnostic commands that explore different paths through a network, to visualize the Internet in all of its enormous complexity. But traceroutes can be blocked, spoofed, or have other inaccuracies. So in a 2010 exhibition from the original Opte to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Lyon explored an alternative. Instead of basing the map on traceroutes, Lyon used Border Gateway Protocol routing tables, Internet metro maps, to get a more accurate view. Now he has carried this approach into this next generation.

The original Opte was a still image, but the 2021 version is a 10K video with lots of companion images, using BGP data from the University of Oregon. Route views Global Internet Mapping Project 1997 to Present. Lyon worked on the visualization for months and relied on a number of apps, tools and scripts to produce it. One is a software package called Large Graph Layout, originally designed to render images of proteins, which tries out hundreds and hundreds of different visual layouts until it finds the most efficient and effective solution. representative. Think of it as some sort of best-fit website, representing all of the internet’s sprawling and interconnected data routes. The closer a network is to the center, the larger and more interconnected it is.

Today, from Opte The Internet: 1997 – 2021.

Video: Barrett Lyon / The Opte Project

While the concept – to map and visualize the entire Internet – remains the same, animating its evolution and expansion over nearly 25 years allows the new version of Opte to be more interactive. The materials are all free for non-commercial use and Lyon hopes the piece will be particularly valuable for educators and engaging for students. Viewers can see details about the different regions of the network, and Lyon has produced diagrams and videos that highlight specific points of interest. One shows China’s network space, for example, with its two heavily controlled input and output connections. Lyon also highlights much of the US military’s internet presence, including NIPRNET, the Department of Defense’s unclassified internet protocol network, and SIPRNET, the secret internet protocol network.

Zoom on the Internet in China, today.

Illustration: Barrett Lyon / The Opte project



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