Please Stand By…

Blogger downtime screenshot

Blogger just came back up from an hour and 13 minute maintenance window. It looks like the outage was system-wide – an extremely rare occurence for Google. With over 10,000 Google servers spread across the globe, it takes a significant issue to bring the entire system down.

Thankfully, the outage didn’t affect Waileia, but it did keep me from reading the blogs of a large number of colleagues and friends. While I waited for the affected blogs to return, I realized that despite how important our modern telecommunications infrastructure is to us, it goes largely unnoticed until something goes wrong. Nobody expected Blogger to be unavailable today, and I doubt that anybody save the companies directly involved thinks about what damage a telecommunications failure could cause to the economy or even human life.

The telephone is probably the most reliable telecommunications device we have, due to an ironic combination of the simplicity of the landline telephone and the complexity of the public switched telephone network (PSTN). Yet, it took government regulation to grow the network to the point where this is possible. I think that if the early AT&T was not so paranoid about losing its government-sanctioned monopoly, the telephone of today would be seen in a very different light.

Television also requires substantial reliability. In an industry where revenue is measured in seconds of air-time, even a small error can be a severe inconvenience for people, and a substantial financial cost to a TV station.

Even the reliability of the Internet is something of a myth. There are surprisingly few network paths out of Hawai’i. We have much better connectivity than we did, say, five years ago, but there are still conceivable situations where we could lose enough network capacity to reach the rest of the world reliably. In theory, we could route to the U.S. via New Zealand or something equally exotic, but we would saturate available capacity fairly quickly.

With all of the gadgets and gizmos that go into delivering bits from one place to another, it’s a wonder telecommunications works at all ;).