The growing potholes on the information superhighway

On 14 August, there was a  the two-hour failure of the New York Times website , during which it resorted to publishing articles on its Facebook page. While a malicious attack was initially suspected, the problem was caused simply by a scheduled system maintenance.

On the same day, Microsoft customers began to report email failures. The outage was traced to problems with the Exchange ActiveSync service which serves email to many of the world’s smartphones. When Exchange hit a glitch, the sheer volume of phones trying to connect triggered a ripple effect that took three days to control.

On 16 August, many of Google’s websites, from email to YouTube to its core search engine, suffered a rare four-minute global meltdown. The episode, the cause of which Google has not explained publicly, served to illustrate the sheer volume of traffic its servers process. During its outage, one monitor put the drop in global internet traffic at 40%.

On 19 August, Amazon’s North American retail site went down for about 49 minutes, with visitors greeted with the word “Oops”. No explanation was given, but one estimate by Forbes put the cost to Amazon at nearly $2m in lost sales.

On 22 August, Apple’s iCloud suffered a blackout that affected a small number of its customers but lasted 11 hours. Storing the collections of photos, music, documents and address books that would once have been kept on shelves at home, iCloud now has 300 million users.

On the same day, there was a three-hour network shutdown that paralysed the operation of the Nasdaq stock market in New York on Thursday, on what should have been a quiet day of routine share trading on the exchange.

In this news piece, Jaron Lanier, the author and inventor of the concept of virtual reality, warns that digital infrastructure is moving beyond human control:

“When you try to achieve great scale with automation and the automation exceeds the boundaries of human oversight, there is going to be failure. That goes for governments, for consumer companies, for Google, or a big insurance company. It is infuriating because it is driven by unreasonable greed. In many cases, the systems that tend to fail, fail because of an attempt to make them run automatically with a minimal amount of human oversight.”


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