09 Jun 2021
It was one hour of global internet disruption ... but it could get a lot worse
On Tuesday night, many of the world’s big websites went down. E-commerce sites, entertainment platforms, online service providers, the British government’s websites and media outlets – including this one – were suddenly inaccessible.
This global outage was apparently caused by a service configuration error at one of the largely faceless technology companies that keeps our access to internet content alive and well.
The company, Fastly, is what’s known as a content delivery network (CDN). CDNs are used primarily to deliver faster and therefore “better” internet more cheaply by distributing the internet load to servers closer to the user.
For example, if you’re a Netflix subscriber, you would be accessing streaming video from a server in Australia rather than the United States – taking milliseconds off loading time.
Ironically, another reason CDNs are used is to reduce downtime. CDNs help to manage surges in traffic that might otherwise overload a website. CDNs provide fast reach to consumers globally and are therefore a cost-effective way for businesses with a worldwide audience to optimise network efficiency and service availability.
But due to it being a business of scale, there are only a few major global players. Other than Fastly, Akamai and Cloudflare are the dominant players. The latter suffered an outage in July 2020, similarly from a configuration error.
Tuesday’s outage points to a significant risk in how the internet functions today. Namely, that the position of CDNs in the infrastructure of today’s internet leads to increased risk for systemic failure.
While Fastly’s outage lasted no more than an hour, it may have affected the revenue of online retailers through lost click-throughs, and in some cases impacted payments, as well as access to news and government services.
It would have been vastly different if it had lasted several hours – and if it had happened, say, during Cyber Monday sales or, worse, during moments when we rely on vital emergency updates, such as during the Black Summer bushfires in 2019-2020.
On Tuesday night, the disruption was brief. And according to Fastly, it wasn’t caused by a cyber attack but by the unintended consequence of an internal configuration change to how its service runs.
But it goes to show that a more extensive and targeted attack could dramatically impact our economy and our society, especially as we come to rely more and more on digital providers and services.