Tuesday, February 5, 2008

How a boat could sink the internet

How a boat could sink the internet
By Scott Shuey, Chief Business Reporter Published: February 02, 2008, 01:39

For those of us who grew up listening to stories about how the internet was invented with the goal of establishing a communications network that would even function in the event of a nuclear war, we have to ask: How did a boat off the coast of Egypt manage to destroy internet access to every continent in the Northern Hemisphere?

The answer to that question is rather disturbing and quite complex. For starters, internet access wasn't destroyed; it was just that the capacity of the remaining connections was severely strained. While the internet may have been designed to withstand global thermonuclear war, it wasn't really designed to make sure you could access MySpace on the Day After.

etisalat and du, by all appearance, did a good job of rerouting the internet to where they could. That doesn't mean that internet access was still available to all, but it did mean that essential communication still happened, just via different routes.

The problem is that the internet has evolved beyond just being a means to communicate. It is now how we do business and share our lives with our friends and family. The original concept behind the internet as envisioned back in the 1960s centred mainly on sending e-mail. We still do that, but we also shop, send pictures, bank, play games and a host of other things that eat up more bandwidth than was even imaginable back in the '60s.

But despite advancements in software, the physical structure of the internet is still '60s technology. It's still an array of servers connected by chords. That's vastly simplifying things, because these chords are more complex than most things we encounter during the day. According to one Cisco engineer whom I spoke with, these cables break down light and use the individual colour of the spectrum as virtualised cables to carry information. It other words, these cables turn all your data into waves of red (just to pick a colour at random) light and send it on its way. The whole thing is amazing, but still somewhat fragile since it can all be brought down by someone trying to do something as crazy as stopping a boat.

That's a huge problem. It's impossible to gauge the amount of money lost since Wednesday, but even some basic guessing shows loss is huge. The internet interruption meant there was no tech support from India, downloads from iTunes were stopped, and business deals didn't get signed. I listened to one person yesterday having a nervous conversation with a colleague because a contract that had been sent via e-mail was apparently lost. "Why didn't you send it by fax?" he asked. His colleague apparently gave him an answer along the lines of "because no one does that anymore."

We've become so dependant on the internet that we never consider what could happen if it goes down, and now we're losing money because of it.

It's obvious that the internet's infrastructure needs an upgrade. e-commerce cannot afford to let itself be subject to the whim of the boating industry. Laying new anchor-proof cables will be a multi-billion project for every existing cable, but it may become a necessity if we want to continue to have confidence in the new industry we've created.

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