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Cloudy Solution

It’s only a matter of time before something else kills our internet

By now, it’s a well known fact that Hurricane Sandy created internet outages for many major news websites such as CNN, Weather.com, the Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, and the Los Angeles Times. Also affected were Gawker, BuzzFeed, Huffington Post and sister sites, Engadget, Autoblog, and Gizmodo. Major e-commerce companies including eBay, Fab.com and Amazon also found themselves unable to transact business or ship orders.

Users of these sites and services are being reassured that everything will be up and running as normal by today or tomorrow, and because Hurricane Sandy was a once-in-100 years confluence of extreme weather patterns, we shouldn’t worry ourselves about it happening again.

But what if it did? And what if the weather had nothing to do with it?

The current, and much-hyped, business solution is cloud computing, which allows companies to essentially outsource their information-technology resources to third parties. This means corporate data, applications, and storage are delivered by networks, primarily the internet, on an as-needed basis. It also means that should anything unforeseen happen at your third-party supplier, or anywhere else in the cloud, and you are unable to access whatever it is you need right now, all those efficiencies of scale—personnel, geography, cost—become meaningless. To put things in perspective, I am old enough to remember being in New York City on Nov. 9, 1965. That was the night when the power went out for 12 hours, and everything relying on electricity ceased working. It was bad enough then, with people stuck for hours in elevators and subway cars, but can you imagine what would happen now when virtually everything we do is accessed, managed, and delivered via computer systems, which obviously, run on electricity?

Almost daily we hear of yet another massive server farm, or data center, being built somewhere in the US. Right now, Apple is building a 350,000-square-foot data center complex in the town of Prineville, Oregon, with plans to build even more. Facebook already has a similar sized facility just across the street, while Amazon seems to be building a new, five-football-field sized, fully computerized warehousing and shipping facility every week. All of these operations consume massive amounts of electricity, yet as the New York Times points out, many of them can waste up to 90% of the electricity they pull off the grid. In addition, the emergency back-up systems of banks of diesel generators and lead-acid batteries needed in case of an emergency we are assured will never happen, create massive amounts of pollution.

So, what happens if one of the 3 million data centers existing worldwide decides to go rogue and triggers a chain reaction that surges through the “cloud,” shutting everything down? And don’t tell me this cannot happen because of the safety features built in. The 1965 New York blackout I lived through was caused by a single incorrectly set relay in a power station in Canada.

Stuff happens. It just happened this week. It could happen again next week. Then again, it might not happen for another year. But you can rest assured, one day, it will happen again.

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