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Explainer: how insecure is the Internet?


BOSTON – The failure of a little-known firm to speed up access to websites took several top Internet destinations offline on Tuesday, disrupting business and leisure for untold millions around the world. The problem was resolved quickly. The company, Fastly, blamed a configuration error in its technology.

But the incident – just as the US East Coast was beginning to stir, Fastly’s traffic fell 75% for nearly an hour – raises questions about how vulnerable the global Internet is to more severe disruption.

What’s fast? Why did so many jobs stop because of its technical problems?

San Francisco-based Fastly isn’t a household name, but its “Edge Server” computing technology is used by many of the world’s most popular websites, such as The New York Times, Shopify, The Guardian, Ticketmaster, Pinterest, Etsy, Wayfair, and more. strip. The British government is among its customers.

The company provides what is called a content delivery network – an arrangement that allows customer websites to store data such as images and videos on various mirror servers in 26 countries so that the data is closer to users, and thus faster. be visible. Fastly has several customer news sites that use their technology to update their websites with breaking news. For example, BuzzFeed used Fastly to halve the time it took its users to access the site. Last year was a sharp $290.9 million in revenue.

Was there any backup? If the problem was more serious, could other companies also come forward?

Customers rely on Fastly and its competitors to protect their website data from disruption from denial-of-service attacks and spikes in traffic. Had this outage been more severe, customers could have turned to competitors such as Cloudflare or Akamai. But it is not easy; Many businesses had to scramble and suffer losses.

“You can’t quickly switch to another service unless you set it up ahead of time,” said Doug Madory, an internet infrastructure specialist at Kentik, a traffic measurement company. “If Fastly was down for a day, it would be too bad.”

Ben April, chief technical officer at Farsight Security, said even though they have an alternative provider, engineering an easy switchover from one to the other isn’t for the faint of heart.

Madori and other experts said Fastly and its competitors spend heavily and devote major engineering resources to reducing the chances of such outages and ensuring they recover as quickly as Fastly on Tuesday. May be

Such outages are not new – but not at all common. “It could be years between a company having an outage like this,” Madori said. “I think we’re going to have these very rare but probably impressive short outages for the foreseeable future.”

Are other parts of the Internet equally vulnerable?

Like the world of content delivery networks, cloud computing — when computing services are assigned to a remote provider — is dominated by a few major players, led by Amazon Web Services, Google and Microsoft. Amazon, the largest cloud provider, has brief outages from time to time, which is a big deal for customers.

“And if it becomes a major outage of more than six, eight hours — but days, it could put companies out of business,” said Josh Cheesman, an analyst at tech market researcher Gartner Inc.

The question is, what could have caused such a severe outage destroying customer data? A major cyber attack is a possibility. Another is fire or catastrophic natural disaster. These businesses are, after all, based on datacenters. In March, a fire at a datacenter in Strasbourg, France, owned by a major cloud computing firm, caused millions of websites to be out of service.

Should the government regulate these firms? What can companies and individuals do to protect themselves?

“I don’t know if we need regulation,” Cheesman said. Suppose Congress proposes mandating additional cloud providers to increase competition. “How do you do that?” He asked.

Of course, the federal government can set new standards for security in companies that control vast data resources online. He said it is already starting to strengthen cyber security requirements for critical infrastructure in the energy sector after last month’s cyber attack on the Colonial Pipeline.

In a regulatory filing last year, Fastly said it was “subject to cyber attacks from third parties — including parties we believe are sponsored by government actors.” Those attacks “put our network under stress” and could damage it in the future, it said.

In the meantime, businesses and consumers should seriously think about how much they should rely on the cloud for their most valuable data. “If there is an interruption, what is the impact on our business?” Chessman asked. Maybe it makes sense not to rely on a cloud-based service for your company’s email if you go bankrupt without it during a two-week outage.

But running your own email and backup services is complicated and expensive — one reason companies turned to the cloud in the first place.

David Waskevich, former Microsoft chief technical officer and CEO of photo management app Mylio, said people have become so accustomed to the always-on Internet — we carry a pocket computer with us wherever we go — that we’re going the wrong way. Let’s assume it will be available 24/7/365.

“It’s not very realistic and it’s not a good way to live,” said Vaskevich, who grew up in a pre-digital world at the age of 67. “The Internet is always there – until it isn’t.”

Despite the vast interconnection of the world, it may still be wise to store some data locally, Vaskevich said. Instead of streaming all our music, we should think about saving some locally. The same goes for email – for example, in an arrangement where you store it on the computing device you use the most.

“Your device is both the internet’s best friend and the best insurance policy,” he said. “When the Internet shuts down, if you organize things carefully, you can still do most of the things you need to do.”

O’Brien reported from Providence, Rhode Island. Calvin Chan in London contributed to this report.

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