Ann Arbor Area Business Monthly
Small Business and the Internet
Down For The Count
By Mike Gould
Long distance information, give me Memphis, Tennessee
Help me find the party trying to get in touch with me…
Chuck Berry, 1963
If you were a Comcast customer on the East Coast trying to reach Marie in Memphis yesterday (June 29, 2018), you were probably out of luck, as the internet provider’s services took a major hit, disrupting telephone, internet, and TV services to thousands of users.
Wired magazine reported a Comcaster saying:"We identified two, separate and unrelated fiber cuts to our network backbone providers,…Our engineers worked to address the issue immediately and services are now being restored to business and residential internet, video and voice customers."
Now to me, this is all pretty scary; a major piece of the country lost email for a good part of the day, due to two snips of fiber optic cable. There is no indication of malfeasance, but it indicates that our digital backbone has some disk slippage issues. (I know just how it feels…)
As Wired summed it up:The internet can be more frail than you'd think, and sometimes all it takes to shut it down is a couple of cuts.
The internet was originally intended to be robust enough to survive a nuclear war, so how did this happen? Well, explosive growth, a massive user base, and relatively new technologies (streaming, texting, VOIP, etc.) are straining the fibers at the core of our technological civilization.
So what’s a fiber, and why do we need it in our digital diet? The tech stuff in question is fiber optic cable, a miles-long super-thin piece of glass with a laser at one end and a detector at the other. [Upcoming Drastically Simplified Explanation Alert] For telephony, your voice is converted from analog (what your ear hears) to digital (what a computer talks with) at a mumblesomethingtechthingie at Comcast or wherever.
Your voice can now be considered a digital stream of information, easily used to turn a laser on and off really, really fast. The laser’s output (photons) shoot down the glass strands, and hit a gizmo miles away that can turn the ones and zeroes of computer talk back into the voices of those we know and love. Sorta.
It’s all bundled up in steel sheathing that should be able to survive most sources of cleavage. Except when it doesn’t. The fibers need to emerge from underground at some point to talk to the detector, and that is usually where things can get wonky (a technical term – see pear-shaped).
At one of my early network training sessions at the University of Michigan, the instructor said something to the effect of: “A network is a wire you can run a backhoe through”. (This was also the session 25 years ago where the internet was referred to as the “steel potato”, in reference to an amorphous blob we now call the cloud, which encompasses all the interlinked networks in the world). Years later, we still see the backhoe effect, but force-multiplied a thousand fold due to the complexities of the entire operation.
As I write this (the next day), things are still being repaired. Just how long does it take to splice a couple of fibers, anyway? I suspect recovery from something like this is non-trivial; routers need to be re-synched, communications databases need updating, vice-presidents need to be blamed and fired, etc..
And it is important to remember that this whole inter-webs stuff is still pretty new. Maybe not in its infancy - it’s more like an awkward adolescence, stumbling around getting used to its growth-spurted legs and endocrine system. Struggling to make and maintain relationships, bumping into things while texting friends… I could go on and run this metaphor right into the ground, but I’m gonna quit before I hit acne (spam).
Waiting For The Electrician
Okay, so you turn on your computer and nothing is going in or out, what do you do? Well, you still have an awesome tool in front of you, why not use it for something? Some suggestions:
Back up everything to that spare hard drive you bought months ago and never got around to installing. You absolutely cannot have too many backups. Are your photos backed up? Oh, you back them up to the cloud, now inaccessible until someone with fiber fixer shows up? Back them up again to something not vulnerable to backhoes.
Once everything is backed up, go back to your files and start trashing the old useless stuff you have been accumulating since the last time you dusted and scrubbed. Have a downloads folder? Chances are it is stuffed with cartoons your mother sends you, pictures of cats your aunt sends you, and dubious offers from Nigerian princes. Select and hit delete. Every couple of years, whether you need it or not…
Fire up some non-internet related software and learn how to use it. That sample photo editing app that you downloaded and always meant to learn? Now is a good time to get some new mad skills. Find a funny cat photo that somehow escaped the above purging and have at it with various filters, croppers, colorizers, and most importantly, caption-izers so that you can inflict share your new meme with your mom and aunt. Ah, revenge…
Everything above is another argument against cloud-based anything. The Achilles’ heel of the entire cloud concept is assuming always-on networking. I have a friend who lives in Taos and works with a server in New York City; he was pretty much forced to take the day off. No network, no work.
Wired article: https://www.wired.com/story/friday-comcast-outage-cut-fiber/
Mike Gould talks to the WWW via his phone. We wishes he was on Comcast, in spite of everything. He was a mouse wrangler for the U of M for 20 years, runs the MondoDyne Macintosh Training/Photography mega-mall, is a laser artist, directs the Illuminatus Lasers, and welcomes comments addressed to firstname.lastname@example.org.