Like the banking system, the internet looks simple from the outside but is really an elaborate patchwork. Tuesday’s outage involving Fastly, a so-called content delivery network, is a reminder for people with their lives in the cloud that pieces of the puzzle can fail. And unlike with banks, there’s little government oversight and no backstop, so it’s good for users to be reminded that instant online gratification is not guaranteed.
Sites including the UK government and the New York Times were inaccessible for up to an hour earlier in the day. Other affected websites included Reddit and Spotify. The culprit was a glitch at Fastly, a $6 billion company with a network of servers that help high-traffic websites move content around the web. Simply put, it gets data nearer to end users, avoiding traffic spikes and congestion and improving security.
Fastly isn’t a household name. Just like the payment systems, clearing houses, physical infrastructure and such underlying the banking network, consumers rarely need to understand the complexity under the hood. All they need to know is there’s cash in the nearby ATM – they don’t have to travel to a bank vault to get it.
The big difference, though, is regulation. Authorities take a close interest in banks, lest they lose people’s money – and because if financial firms become too big to fail, governments can end up on the hook. Deposit insurance exists because societies have decided that users can’t be expected to grasp the nuances of fractional reserve banking, where deposits might not be where the saver thinks they are.
Not so the internet, an informal, mutually beneficial collaboration between companies, governments and others. Mostly that works remarkably effectively. Where there are bottlenecks, companies like Fastly pop up to ease the pressure. But governments don’t enforce 99.999% uptime promises, or backstop broken links in real time. Users that need extra reliability have to pay more or build critical infrastructure themselves.
The Fastly outage was hardly disastrous. Other internet-related problems, including hacks with physical impacts like the shutdown of the Colonial Pipeline in the Eastern United States last month, can be much worse. If nothing else, though, it’s a nudge for consumers not to be complacent about internet availability, and to be ready to be forced to take life slower. Far worse would be a fallible system that users believe to be perfect. Reuters