A huge global web blackout is still slightly shocking.
We expect websites like Twitch, Pinterest, Reddit, Spotify, and the UK government site, gov.uk, to be there when we want them, so when they are suddenly unavailable, or even just a little slow, it’s outrageous.
In truth, what is scandalous is that these sites don’t go down more often. When you think about the issues they’re grappling with, it’s amazing that they exist, let alone the instantaneous way we take for granted.
Consider just one of these issues: the speed of light.
The Internet is built on a network of fiber optic cables that transmit information in the form of light pulses. They are amazingly fast, but they always have a limit, because nothing can ever travel faster than the speed of light.
This means that if you are in the UK and want to go to a website that stores their data in the US, it will take you a few more milliseconds to get here, even if the fiber optic cable goes straight (and in practice, it never does).
Over time, this delay will slow things down, making it impossible to stream videos or music or even pay for a product online.
The solution to this problem is to create a local store of the data you want, so that you can access it without having to wait for it to travel from home.
Of course, that’s easier said than done, because the “you” in this case is every surfer in the world. This means having local stores, or âedge servers,â all over the world.
You might think this sounds incredibly difficult and complicated, and you would be right. But that’s how the modern web works, using a service called a content delivery network, or CDN.
Think of a CDN as a digital equivalent of the Amazon delivery system. Your order may go to the Amazon mothership, but the thing you ordered is shipped from your nearest warehouse. CDNs do this sorting on behalf of websites, making it a central part of modern web infrastructure. (They also play a key role in safety.)
Of course, this centrality is also a weakness. If a CDN goes awry, even briefly, it can drag many websites with it. This is what happened on Tuesday morning when a CDN called Fastly encountered an as yet unexplained issue, briefly pushing a wide range of sites offline.
The problem was fixed very quickly, with full service restored within hours, but it’s another reminder that the web is as good as its many different parts.
We could take this as a warning about the fragility of the web. Given how much we depend on it, this is an important lesson.
But since this problem was solved so quickly, I prefer to see it as a reminder of the miracle of the Web’s existence, supported as it is by the work of hundreds of thousands of unsung engineers.
The real shame, for me, is that we only see their work when it goes wrong. The Romans built aqueducts and the Victorians built stations, but we hid 21st century infrastructure in anonymous gray boxes.
Imagine if we all knew exactly where we get our websites from because there was a public architecture celebrating it. At the very least, it would give us something to visualize the next time our favorite site goes down.