Internet service providers routed their systems around San Francisco and local Internet sites stalled on Tuesday morning when a problem at a Pacific Gas & Electric substation blacked out part of the Bay Area from 8:15 a.m. PT until the early afternoon.
While the outage snarled city traffic and caused problems for many local Internet-based businesses, for the national Net, the outage was but a hiccup. But for the Internet, a hiccup can be really big. "This is just like a nuclear bomb going off in Northern California," said Steve Dougherty, director of Internet operations for network service provider EarthLink Networks Inc. "San Francisco is off the Net, but it has reconfigured itself around [the city] just like it is designed to do."
The Internet was originally envisioned by the Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency as a distributed network capable of surviving a nuclear blast. If one or more network nodes are obliterated, information is still able to route around the affected areas.
For Pasadena, California.-based EarthLink, the Internet worked as advertised. Still, while the company was not affected by the outage, some of its Bay Area customers were. "People have to scramble to get access in Northern California," he said. In total, the company boasts 815,000 customers.
Rival Netcom On-line Communication Services Inc. has customers with similar problems. "We have backup generators that brought us up," said project manager Pam Gonzagas. "If the customer doesn't have them, then their site will go down. It's more of a problem for the customer."
EarthLink has "hardened" its network control centre to withstand up to a magnitude-7 earthquake, said Dougherty, but the company has not yet taken the next step: To co-locate its data and control operations to a separate site -- so if one site goes down, the other takes over.
Judging from the incidents over the past year, the greatest threat to the high-tech Internet may be the low-tech backhoe. "One of my providers has had 82 backhoes cuts," said EarthLink's Dougherty, who added that the provider was still able to keep its service up. What would it take to down the Internet? "An army of backhoes all working together," he said.
More serious may be the Millennium bug, according to a report released on Tuesday by the National Association of Counties. In the first survey of its size at the local level, the group, which represents the nation's 3,069 counties, said only 50 percent of the 500 counties it surveyed last month are ready for potentially disastrous computer snafus on Jan. 1, 2000. "It is a critical problem that has the potential for disaster," Betty Lou Ward, president of the group said.
Reuters contributed to this report.