The year that was: A word cloud look at NANOG in 2020

By on 4 Mar 2021

Category: Tech matters

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What a year. Let’s take a look at what people talked about in NANOG, in aggregate.

Curious to discover the topics that gathered the most interest, I decided to use ‘word cloud’ methods and the NANOG archive subject lines (I used a python tool, but there are many others).

The word cloud for 2020
Figure 1 — A word cloud of all the 2020 NANOG archive subject lines.

Wait, what? Is that all the prominence that COVID had? And was NANOG seriously that interested in the RIPE NCC board election?

Nope. It turns out the story is a bit more complicated than that. Let’s try taking this month by month.

Naturally, we’ll start with January. Here’s a month of ‘Subject:’ line matches with a simple stopwords model, culled from the web. 

The word cloud for January 2020
Figure 2 — A word cloud of the January 2020 subject lines.

This looks a lot more like what you’d expect from an engineering list. There were many discussions about DDoS and network issues, NOC, and 5G. That looks like network engineering to me. February wasn’t that different, when it comes down to it.

Let’s look at March:

The word cloud for March 2020
Figure 3 — A word cloud of the March 2020 subject lines.

March was when the shock of COVID hit the NANOG consciousness, and the entire month of discussion was dominated by the obvious. But, if you look into the background, there are still underlying engineering topics being discussed. Well, that kind of makes sense. Sure, we all had to re-engineer things for lockdown and COVID, but the other problems didn’t just go away.

Here’s April:

The word cloud for April 2020
Figure 4 — A word cloud of the April 2020 subject lines.

Wow! People just got on with things, and there was nothing really significant being said or discussed that was out of the ordinary. As far as a NANOG network engineer was concerned, we ‘did’ COVID in March.

May was the month that NANOG exploded into discussions about the RIPE NCC executive. It pushed all other considerations off the table. This doesn’t mean there was no other discussion but by sheer depth and repetition (which is after all a gauge of interest and engagement), it dominated this month. And then, like COVID, it stopped!

The word cloud for May 2020
Figure 5 — A word cloud of the May 2020 subject lines.

In June, July, August, and September, there was a return to normal networking topics. OK. November? This has to be about the US elections — surely?

The word cloud for November 2020
Figure 6 — A word cloud of the November 2020 subject lines.

Nope! There’s no particular sign NANOG wanted to engage in a fight on the list about what the elections were doing. RIPE elections? Sure. US elections? Nope. Disney? Well, the Disney+ streaming service launched, and made a transformational jump in content flows for Internet video delivery. That’s actually a conversation in itself — how OTT content is now affecting the bandwidth assumptions of older, established, networks.

Read Geoff Huston’s: Notes from NANOG 81

December? The same — it was a technology focus issue. It really wasn’t affected by the domestic (US) electoral issues, or anything unusual.

Now, let’s get to January 2021:

The word cloud for January 2021
Figure 7 — A word cloud of the January 2021 subject lines.

Parler, and the consequences of the shutting down of a platform, was prominent in the discussions. This makes sense because issues of site suppression, hosting, routing, and network engineering are not ‘de-platforming’ in the political sense. These issues are questions that go to the core of what network engineering actually is. The NDAA reference relates to studies of emergency network usage, which was funded in the general defence bill, and also speaks to the nature of coordinated national network services in North America. It makes good sense that it was a hot topic in NANOG.

So, what’s the takeaway here?

Firstly, the main takeaway is that NANOG is a vibrant, interactive list, and has all kinds of people eager to talk. But, noting the big ‘elephant in the room’ topic of 2020, NANOG remained remarkably focused and did not simply descend into COVID-specific topics. It did its job, and provided a safe space for engineers to talk about network engineering.

Secondly, the dominance of the RIPE NCC board election needs to be put in context. This was one month out of 12. It was 30% of the traffic in that month. COVID was 25% of the March subject, by count. So, contextually, it was bigger. Let’s put this in context over the year:

MonthTotal MessagesCovid SubjectRIPE Subject

Table 1 — Yearly breakdown of COVID and RIPE subjects.

In reality, at reduced intensity, COVID was something NANOG had to talk about, but the RIPE NCC elections were a discussion at a point in time. It was, in fact, a bit of a spat between two people and not actually that material to the discussion overall. If you filter out the RIPE, NCC, Election, Executive, and Board keyword list, you get a much more expected outcome:

The word cloud for 2020, with certain keywords filtered out.
Figure 8 — A word cloud of the 2020 subject lines with RIPE, NCC, Election, Executive and Board keywords filtered out.

The January 2021 key topic — Parler — is, however, a salutary reminder to any network engineer that serious issues that arise outside of network engineering circles can have consequences inside them. But, in reality, network engineers will have to deal with real-world outcomes that demand action in the network, not the political discussions that drove them.

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