Social media outages a reminder of network fragility
It would be no exaggeration to say that IT saved business during the Covid-19 pandemic, but as restrictions ease things seem to be getting worse.
The Internet, built for network resilience rather than rapid data transfer, kept businesses operating thanks to the hard work of countless engineers and other unsung digital plumbers, and it did so despite an increase in packet traffic more than proportionate to the drop-off in road traffic. Statistics from Packet Clearing House show that Internet traffic skyrocketed between the start of lockdown in March 2020 and March 2021. Some countries, such as Luxembourg, saw traffic grow by 239%, stats from sat nav device maker TomTom show that vehicular traffic in the EU dropped from between 75% and 80% at the height of lockdown.
It’s hardly surprising. Eurofound, the EU’s, Dublin-based labour reporting agency, found remote working exceeded 30%, and this despite the fact that some jobs were impossible to perform from home.
Now that some semblance of normality is returning, however, more and more businesses seem to be having trouble keeping themselves online, Facebook’s recent catastrophic outage being only the most dramatic example.
Facebook’s apparent arrogance in allowing its three core assets (Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp) and even physical access to its buildings connect through a single point of failure is verging on hubris. Anyone responsible for enterprise IT would do well to skip the schadenfreude. Like this summer’s HSE breach, it could happen to anyone.
The Internet famously has its roots, only partly aprochyphally, in a wacky Cold War scheme intended to allow communication to continue in the rather adverse circumstances of a nuclear war. Unsurprisingly, then, resilience is key.
However, like the concept of online anonymity, resilience is widely misunderstood. The Internet, an interconnected network of networks, does not really ‘route around damage’ as the Electronic Freedom Frontier John Gilmore once put it. What it does do is attempt to ensure that packets get to their destination, and in doing so a greater emphasis is placed on packets getting through at all than in arriving in a timely manner.
As a result, the wars over net neutrality and, later, the development of controversial content delivery network (CDN) services were near inevitable. From online banking to video streaming, more and more businesses, and customers, demand not only high throughput but ultra-low latency.
The simple fact is that the Internet was not designed for this, and it is close to a miracle that it has held up, and businesses reliant on it, which is to say all of them, need to know this. You can be sure that exhausted network engineers do.
Michele Neylon, chief executive of domain registrar and hosting company Blacknight said there is little understanding of how the internet grew in an ad hoc manner, aided by a lack of rules.
“The problem is we’ve become too clever. We’ve made it so easy that people think it’s straightforward,” he said.
Even Facebook’s regulatory problems offer a salutary warning on the dangers of dealing in data, and which business today does not?
Meanwhile, broken logistics chains – the original global networks – not only mean the other kind of packet is getting stuck, it puts further pressure on badly-needed IT refreshes that should respond to how we live and work with rather more than duct tape and hope.
The current chip shortage in particular, in part driven by the outsourcing and off-shoring of labour by wealthy societies more comfortable with shifting bits than lifting atoms, has created extraordinary bottlenecks. Not least among them is a global overreliance on one fab, the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company; an excellent business no doubt, but not one located in the most geopolitically stable part of the world. This, combined with inflation, means that workers at the ‘silicon face’ will soon be asked to do more with less, putting more pressure on already weary and discombobulated IT teams.
Network society theorists like Manuel Castells argued that we had moved past the so-called ‘information society’ marked by mainframes and databases. The evidence that he was right is staring us in the face, from endless talk of digital transformation to seemingly endless growth of time spent on social media. Doubtless there are serious social questions to be asked about the impact of living in such a world, but a more immediate question is what we will do if our networks fail.