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Things You Should Know But Don’t: Down and Out

Posted August 17, 2021

In our modern world, one of the most frustrating things is not being able to get online. Whether your modem is having issues or your provider has an outage, it tends to put both work and fun on hold. In the past few months, you may have noticed two major wide-spread outages that downed a lot of websites. The first occurred on June 8th and lasted a little over an hour. The second occurred July 22nd, also lasting about an hour.

It’s easy to write off a website not working as a problem with your PC or internet provider, but there’s actually a completely different service behind these types of outages. Both of the most recent outages were caused by software bugs in something called a content delivery network (CDN). Put simply, CDNs reduce the workload of the original server where information for a website is stored. They do this by storing a cached version of a website in different places all over the world so that you don’t experience long delays in loading no matter where the original server is located. CDNs are the reason that you can browse a website based in Europe from the USA without having to wait a very long time because the connection is essentially local. In a world that is so globally connected and dependent on the internet for everyday work, this is ostensibly a good thing.

The problem, however, is that the vast majority of internet traffic uses only a few different CDNs. The June 8th outage was caused when a customer inadvertently triggered a bug in Fastly’s software. Fastly is a CDN provider that routes 10% of the world’s internet traffic including from major websites such as Reddit, Amazon, and Twitch as well as several news and government websites. All of the websites were out of service during this outage. Similarly, the July 22nd outage was caused by a bug in a software update to Akamai. Both these outages are problematic for the same reason – the consolidation of the internet makes it a very fragile system. Even sites that used different or multiple CDNs found that they went offline if they happened to share the workload with one of the companies that was experiencing an outage. In 2019, the Internet Society did a report on the “flattening” of the internet. It emphasizes that the internet is becoming progressively more dependent on a small number of large, private companies. From a practical standpoint, a single company experiencing software issues can quickly shut down entire parts of our infrastructure. From a more theoretical standpoint, the report argues that “the nature of an open, collaborative, and interoperable Internet is influenced by a small number of large companies.”

Between the recent Colonial Pipeline hack and these last two major outages, it’s increasingly evident just how dependent our society is on not only the internet as a whole, but the few companies that operate it. The last outages were software bugs with fixes that were implemented within an hour- but what might happen if the next one is caused by something more malicious? Or, what might happen of ownership continues to concentrate in a few until, in theory, a single company comes to own the majority of the internet?  The internet holds our current infrastructure together, but it may be the thing that tears it apart in the long-run if something is not done about the every shrinking influencers who hold the future in their hands.

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