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A Trippy Visualization Charts the Internet’s Growth Since 1997

In November 2003, security researcher Barrett Lyon was finishing college at California State University, Sacramento while working full time as a penetration tester—a hacker companies hire to find weaknesses in their own digital systems. At the beginning of each job, Lyon would do some basic reconnaissance of the customer’s infrastructure; “case the joint,” as he puts it. He realized he was essentially refining and repeating a formula to map what the new target network looked like. “That formula ended up being an easy piece of software to write, so I just started having this software do all the work for me,” Lyon says.

At lunch with his colleagues one day, Lyon suggested that he could use his network mapper to sketch the entire internet. “They thought that was pretty funny, so they bet me 50 bucks I couldn’t do it,” he says. So he did.

What followed was a vast, celestial jumble of thin, overlapping lines, starbursts, and branches in a static image that depicted the global internet of the early 2000s. Lyon called the piece Opte, and while his betting colleagues were skeptical of the visual rats nests he produced at first, the final product immediately started attracting fans on Slashdot and beyond.

Lyon’s original Opte Internet Map from 2003.

Illustration: Barrett Lyon/The Opte Project

Now Opte is back in an entirely new and updated form. The original version used “traceroutes,” diagnostic commands that scout 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 exhibit of the original Opte at 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, the subway maps of the internet, to get a more accurate view. Now he’s carried that approach into this next generation.

The original Opte was a still image, but the 2021 version is a 10K video with extensive companion stills, using BGP data from University of Oregon’s Route Views project to map the global internet from 1997 to today. Lyon worked on the visualization for months and relied on a number of applications, tools, and scripts to produce it. One is a software package called Large Graph Layout, originally designed to render images of proteins, that attempts hundreds and hundreds of different visual layouts until it finds the most efficient, representative solution. Think of it as a sort of web of best fit, depicting all of the internet’s sprawling, interconnected data routes. The closer to the center a network is, the bigger and more interconnected it is.

Present day, from Opte The Internet: 1997 – 2021.

Video: Barrett Lyon/The Opte Project

While the concept—to map and visualize the whole internet—remains the same, animating its evolution and expansion over almost 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 to educators and engaging for students. Viewers can see details about the different network regions, and Lyon made some diagrams and videos that call out specific points of interest. One shows China’s network space, for example, with its two heavily controlled connections in and out. Lyon also highlights much of the United States military’s internet presence, including NIPRNET, the Department of Defense’s Non-Classified Internet Protocol Network, and SIPRNET, the Secret Internet Protocol Network.

Zooming in on China’s internet, present day.

Illustration: Barrett Lyon/The Opte Project


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