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The Network Infrastructure Puzzle That Made “Netflix and Chill” Possible
“It's not a coincidence that the company was called Netflix. The intention was always to deliver it over the network. We just needed to feel that the network was ready.” – Dave Temkin
Netflix succeeded because it—alongside others at the time—solved a huge infrastructure challenge. Eliminating the need to drive down to your local Blockbuster Video to rent a movie took a miracle of hardware and convoluted networking…and a few motivated geniuses to figure it all out.
After the government relaxed telco regulations in the 1990s, there was a wave of communications infrastructure development. Williams, an oil-and-gas company, built fiber networks using its non-operational pipelines. A company called Level 3 Communications decided that internet infrastructure needed to be built from scratch and have the capacity for future upgrades.
Jack Waters worked at Level 3 during that period. He describes his role at the time as one of “the plumbers” who “went and dug up the ground, and threw conduits in the ground, and threw fiber in the conduits, and hooked up optical equipment to the fiber, and hooked up routers to the optical equipment, and all that.”
Level 3 built 16,500 miles of network in the US and 3,500 miles in Europe in 30 months. Before this network was built, the internet ran largely on the legacy telephone network.
The final piece of the puzzle was an open, interconnected, and decentralized network.
“You have many networks around the world, and it's not as if they're sort of independent, in place the way a road network might be,” says Andrew Blum, author of Tubes: A Journey to the Center of the Internet. “But in fact, the networks of the internet are often piled on top of each other, where one network rides upon another network. And the result is confusing. There are many layers of ownership. There are many technical layers of how networks fit together.”
In Episode 3 of the Traceroute podcast, featuring Blum and Waters, among others, we detail the hidden infrastructure that connects computers around the world. It all starts at Netflix, where the top-tier engineers always knew that streaming movies would have to replace the model of sending DVDs through the mail. But that would require a lot of bandwidth and routing a lot of data. The key to solving this data transmission challenge was networks.
“When I got there, our primary business was shipping DVDs. You know, we were shipping millions of DVDs at that point,” says Dave Temkin, who spent more than a decade working on the networking challenge at Netflix (his title there was VP of Network and Systems Infrastructure). “And we always knew that streaming was going to be the future. It's not a coincidence that the company was called Netflix. The intention was always to deliver it over the network. We just needed to feel that the network was ready.”
Temkin and team built one of the largest content delivery networks in the world, serving more than 200 million customers. It took years to build, and while Netflix would be nowhere without great content, we wouldn’t be able to “Netflix and chill” without the network.
Listen and subscribe to Traceroute, a podcast that tells the backstory of the internet and digital infrastructure at large, as told by those who built it and those who documented its history: Apple, Spotify, RSS
Published on02 March 2022
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