So Where Does Stuff Come From?

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You regularly hear about the disconnect between real life and people's perceptions of it. For example, it seems that two thirds of inner-city school kids don't realize that the contents of their beef burger comes from cows, or that they make bread out of the tall, pale brown, grass-like stuff growing in fields. However, is this really a problem? Do we need to know where stuff actually comes from?

If you popped into your local DIY store and ordered ten bags of concrete for delivery, there's a fairly good chance the van that brings them came from that store. But if you order a book from Amazon, you probably have no idea where it will come from. Here in the UK, it will probably come from a warehouse in England, or Starfish in Jersey, or some distributor in continental Europe. Or is might, like a book I bought recently from Amazon.co.uk, come from an associate who sells through Amazon and ships from his spare bedroom in the village next to where I live (which is annoying because I paid £2.70 for postage and packing).

And then there's the "How on earth do they do that" stuff you buy. I get my electricity from a company that I discovered later are in France. But I can easily switch to buying it from any of a dozen other suppliers. Yet they don't deliver it in a van, and there's only one wire under the street. So how do they know which volts and amps came all the way from France and are mine, and which ones the nice couple next door bought from a different supplier in Scotland? I suppose there's really only one main supplier, and all these others companies just buy rights to it at wholesale prices and then sell me permission to use my share; a bit like buying CALs for SQL Server or a 25 seat license for Microsoft Office.

Strangely, however, this doesn't seem to work with water. If I phone Severn Trent plc (my local water company) and say that in future I want to buy my water from Anglian Water Company, they'll just tell me to move to Norwich. If I want water in Derbyshire, I have to buy it from Severn Trent. Ah, but the Government are talking about building a national water grid, just like we have a national electricity grid, so maybe then I'll be able to buy water from anybody. It will be interesting to see if Scottish water tastes different to London water.

Though here's the question: why should the Government pay for a national water grid? They want one because London and the South East are so dry there's a risk of forest fires and they'll soon have to ban people from cleaning their teeth, while where I live we're splashing around in flooded gardens and hoping for global warming. But if the water companies own the water and sell it to us, why don't they pay to deliver it to where the people are who want to buy it? Unlike electricity, they actually can deliver it in a van.

But I suppose the most impenetrable delivery conundrum is where web pages come from. Rather than the glib answer of "a web server, stupid", I'm thinking geographically and technologically. For example, when I open a web page at Amazon, where do all the various bits come from? I know that it's probably all in Amazon's "cloud", in much the same way as I guess Hotmail is in Microsoft's cloud (a.k.a. Windows Azure). Yet there's dozens of images that seem to come from other places. And there always appears to be several bits of the page filled with whirly "please wait" things where it can't make up its mind what to fetch, or where to fetch it from.

The same, of course, applies to adverts and the various twiddly bits on other sites (such as all the social networking icons, which are fetched from the social network sites so that they can track your journey around the web). And even typing a URL doesn't guarantee your deliverance to a specific site any more. Most large corporations redirect you to your local site based on your IP address or browser language setting. If you are outside the U.S, just hit www.google.com to see how.

And now, if you host your websites in Windows Azure, you can use the Traffic Manager Service to do the same routing confusion thing for your visitors. Traffic Manager knows about IP addresses and the latency of connections between all of the worldwide locations and all the Azure datacenters, as well as which deployments of your site have fallen over, and so it can reroute users to the appropriate deployment. So when I next order a book that I think is coming from the guy in his spare bedroom in the next village, it may be that it will actually be dispatched from Australia.

And the whole point is that, unless I take the trouble to read the small print on the back of the package, I'll probably never realize where it came from...

  • Very insightful. Thanks

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So Where Does Stuff Come From?