S.F. power outage hits the Net

Summary:'Simple human error' blamed for blackout that KOs Pacific Stock Exchange and several Web sites, wreaks havoc on city streets and at San Francisco's airport.

Updated at 2:30 PM PT

SAN FRANCISCO -- A major power outage hit greater San Francisco and parts of the Peninsula Tuesday morning, causing scattershot problems for Internet Web operators and service providers.

The outage, which occurred at approximately 8:15 a.m. PT, was caused by "simple human error, which then triggered a complex sequence of events," according to a statement from Pacific Gas and Electric. The company traced the problem to a substation in San Mateo County that caused plants in the Hunters Point and Potrero Hill neighborhoods of San Francisco to shut down as a safety measure.

PG&E said it expected to restore full power to the affected regions by the afternoon.

Who got hit
The impact of the outage was uneven, with some companies such as @Home Networks escaping without a cyber scratch. But others were not so fortunate.

Employees at the Web site Salon Magazine couldn't post to the Web site from their downtown offices until after 12 p.m. PT.

Computer Web company CNet, whose offices are in the area affected by the blackout, was not reachable by phone and the firm's online sites were down for a good portion of the morning. By early afternoon, CNet's news site was back up.

CNet's sites were down for about an hour while the company waited for emergency generators to be delivered to its headquarters in San Francisco. But even after their arrival, the generators powered just the company's onsite servers.

Many of the buildings were left dark -- including those that house News.com, Snap.com, and the company's television production department. Employees played football in the street in front of the building while waiting for power to resume.

CNet couldn't update its news Web site because the newsroom had no power. Reporters and editors milled about among the dark computer screens -- some doing what reporting they could by phone. "We're just tapping our feet, waiting for the power to come back on," one editor said. Many people were sent home to work.

A few blocks away at online retailer BuyDirect.com, the building was dark, but the site was up and running. BuyDirect President William Headapohl credits his company's distributed infrastructure. "We did that on purpose, in case something like this happened," Headapohl said.

While employees had little to do in the company's powerless San Francisco offices, BuyDirect's servers -- located in a data center miles away -- kept humming. The data center -- which is hosted by Exodus Communications Inc. -- sits along the San Francisco and San Jose power grids, meaning that if one shuts down, the other can pick up the slack or tap into battery-powered and diesel generators.

'Dependent on Internet'
"We're an e-commerce company. We're completely dependent on the Internet for our revenue," Headapohl said.

Pager companies reported service brownouts. Although the networks remained operational, users reported losing pages when they attempted to contact someone who was not within range of a working dish.

The blackout affected stables of the Bay Area's infrastructure -- including mass transit lines and the airport. San Francisco's airport had prevented some flights from landing or leaving, and security checkpoints at the airport had been shut down. Some flights were being rerouted to San Jose and Oakland airports.

For a time, the region's 411 service (directory assistance) was only accepting emergency calls. A spokesman for the San Francisco Police Department said its backup generators immediately kicked in, supplying power for all 911 calls.

Trading at the Pacific Stock Exchange was also halted; a spokesman said it was unclear when trading would resume.

PacBell: Switching generators
No problems were reported at Pacific Bell Internet services, a division of SBC Communciations Inc. A spokeswoman said the company automatically switched over to emergency power generators, and was in the process of transferring network operations to its Dallas center. PacBell has about 200,000 business and residential customers in California.

The outage cut service to thousands of electricity customers and snarled traffic at the height of morning rush-hour traffic.

Also, BART -- the regional metro transit service linking San Francisco with Oakland and the East Bay -- was put out of commission, and traffic on city streets was a mess.

PG&E said it appeared power was out to at least 360,000 customers in and around San Francisco. A spokesman said the company was still investigating the cause of the outage.

An undetermined number of America Online users' Web sites hosted on the service could potentially be knocked offline by problems arising from the outage, said a company spokeswoman. But AOL said its proprietary service has not been affected, and users are not reporting problems getting onto the Web via AOL.

EarthLink: 'Zero' effect
Steve Dougherty, director of Internet operations at EarthLink Network Inc., said the outage had had "zero" effect on his company's service.

"When the power goes out, we have UPS [uninterruptible power supply] protection. In most cases it would kick over to generator," if there was a continued outage, he said. EarthLink has about 50,000 accounts in the Bay Area. It hosts business Web sites in Southern California, so those were not affected, he said.

"Where someone would be affected is if they're dialing in from their home, and their home was affected," he said. "Then they'll be off until their local power comes on."

By Charles Cooper with contributions from Margaret Kane, Maria Seminerio, Lisa Bowman and Rob Lemos.

Topics: Outage, Data Centers, Servers

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