A story of the gradual evolution of network speeds without me noticing

April 30, 2016

A long time ago I had a 28.8Kbps dialup connection running PPP (it lasted a surprisingly long time). A couple of times I really needed to run a graphical X program from work while I was at home, so I did 'ssh -X work' and then started whatever program it was. And waited. And waited. Starting and using an X program that is moving X protocol traffic over a 28.8K link gives you a lot of time to watch the details of how X applications paint their windows, and it teaches you patience. It's possible, but it's something you only really do in desperation.

(I believe one of the times I did this was when I really needed to dig some detail out of SGI's graphical bug reporting and support tool while I was at home. This was back in the days before all of this was done through the web.)

Eventually I finally stepped up to DSL (around this time), although not particularly fast DSL; I generally got 5000 Kbps down and 800 Kbps up. I experimented with doing X over my DSL link a few times and it certainly worked, but it still wasn't really great. Simple text stuff like xterm (with old school server side XLFD fonts) did okay, but trying to run something graphical like Firefox was still painful and basically pointless. At the time I first got my DSL service I think that 5/.8 rate was pretty close to the best you could get around here, but of course that changed and better and better speeds became possible. Much like I stuck with my dialup, I didn't bother trying to look into upgrading for a very long time. More speed never felt like it would make much of a difference to my Internet experience, so I took the lazy approach.

Recently various things pushed me over the edge and I upgraded my DSL service to what is about 15/7.5 Mbps. I certainly noticed that this made a difference for things like pushing pictures up to my Flickr, but sure, that was kind of expected with about ten times as much upstream bandwidth. Otherwise I didn't feel like it was any particular sea change in my home Internet experience.

Today I updated my VMWare Workstation install and things went rather badly. I'd cleverly started doing all of this relatively late in the day, I wound up going home before VMWare had a chance to reply to the bug report I filed about this. When I got home, I found a reply from VMWare support that, among other things, pointed me to this workaround. I applied the workaround, but how to test it? Well, the obvious answer was to try firing up VMWare Workstation over my DSL link. I didn't expect this to go very well for the obvious reasons; VMWare Workstation definitely is a fairly graphical program, not something simple (in X terms) like xterm.

Much to my surprise, VMWare Workstation started quite snappily. In fact, it started so fast and seemed so responsive that I decided to try a crazy experiment: I actually booted up one of virtual machines. Since this requires rendering the machine's console (more or less embedded video) I expected it to be really slow, but even this went pretty well.

Bit by bit and without me noticing, my home Internet connection had become capable enough to run even reasonably graphically demanding X programs. The possibility of this had never even crossed my mind when I considered a speed upgrade or got my 15/7.5 DSL speed upgrade; I just 'knew' that my DSL link would be too slow to be really viable for X applications. I didn't retest my assumptions when my line speed went up, and if it hadn't been for this incident going exactly like it did I might not have discovered this sea change for years (if ever, since when you know things are slow you generally don't even bother trying them).

There's an obvious general moral here, of course. There are probably other things I'm just assuming are too slow or too infeasible or whatever that are no longer this way. Assumptions may deserve to be questioned and re-tested periodically, especially if they're assumptions that are blocking you from nice things. But I'm not going to be hard on myself here, because assumptions are hard to see. When you just know something, you are naturally a fish in water. And if you question too many assumptions, you can spend all of your time verifying that various sorts of water are still various sorts of wet and never get anything useful done.

(You'll also be frustrating yourself. Spending more than a small bit of your time verifying that water is still wet is not usually all that fun.)

Written on 30 April 2016.
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Last modified: Sat Apr 30 02:18:23 2016
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