The internet is a smooth machine? Not so Fastly

Error messages and broken image links showed up the vulnerability of the web

Screen grab taken from the Downdetector website showing a number of leading media websites giving error messages. Photograph: PA Photo.

Screen grab taken from the Downdetector website showing a number of leading media websites giving error messages. Photograph: PA Photo.

 

Yesterday was, in one respect, a good day for Silicon Valley-based internet infrastructure provider Fastly. Its share price surged, for a start. And everybody knows its name now, which is also good.

But it was also a busy day at Fastly HQ for the wrong reasons. According to its website, the company “helps people stay better connected with the things they love”. For a rough hour on Tuesday, it was doing the opposite.

Thousands of websites – including several of the world’s largest news sites, streaming services, online retailers and even the UK government and the White House – went offline, with error messages appearing on The Irish Times, the BBC, the New York Times, the Financial Times and CNN, among others.

Spotify, Twitch, Hulu and HBO Max were also affected, while some Twitter users noticed that all their image links were broken.

This domino effect originated at Fastly, which operates a content delivery network (CDN) designed to make web pages and larger files such as music and video load faster – and it usually does.

But seemingly without the intervention of any malicious cyberattack, a service configuration error at Fastly “triggered disruptions” across its global points of presence (POPs) and led to a hairy period in which major news brands raced to publish a story that directly concerned whether or not it or any of their stories could be read.

So was this just a 59-minute blip?

Or should we expect vast chunks of the internet to go down on a semi-regular basis?

Previous large-scale internet outages have been triggered at massive cloud hosting services such as Amazon Web Services or domain-name system (DNS) services such as Cloudflare (which also operates a CDN). It is wholly likely that Fastly’s configuration error will not be the last we will experience.

For some internet users, the outage may bring temporary peace of mind – an escape from the anxiety brought by yet more bad news.

But for many businesses, even momentary loss of service means lost revenue and lost opportunity in a world that is always-on.

Widespread reliance on a small group of companies to keep the wheels of the internet from coming off just isn’t a tale that will have a happy ending.

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