I regularly receive calls from clients, family and friends that follow a familiar pattern, “My internet is slow|broken|acting weird, and yes, I just rebooted my device.” My cohorts and I in the technology industry will take full credit for finally ingraining in our clients the (oftentimes) self-healing mantra of “reboot, reboot, reboot,” but when powering it off and back on doesn’t “fix the internet”, we have to get down to the real business of technical support. Since we are all friends here, I’ll let you in on a little secret: Sometimes even we so-called experts don’t know why your internet is broken, but I’ll try to explain why that is.
The internet really is “a series of tubes”
Former Alaskan Senator Ted Stevens received no small amount of flack from the industry when he infamously used this description of the internet in his opposition of net neutrality back in 2006. Some of that scorn was rightly earned as it was clear that Stevens was not as technically savvy as his responsibilities would seemingly require as the head of the Senate committee in charge of regulating said “series of tubes,” but over the years I’ve often used plumbing as an analog for the internet when working with clients (both savvy and otherwise). Similar to troubleshooting a plumbing problem, figuring out why your data isn’t flowing freely involves tracing the path of the data from origin to destination, and when it comes to content delivered by internet, rarely is it a straight, easy-to-follow path.
Even when the last few dozen feet to your device may be completely wireless, somewhere nearby is a piece of equipment attached to one or more wires, which are themselves attached to other devices and more wires, and so on for hundreds or even thousands of miles, depending on the path that your data takes across the internet. Depending on the technology and platform, the stream of bits that comprises your email or cat video or instant message can cross dozens of those intersections on a path that could take literally hundreds of different twists and turns on its way to you. Fortunately for everyone, the technology of the internet is designed so that instead of humans determining that path for every single bit, machines do it for us, and they normally do a very good job of finding an optimal path through this maze of wires, or “series of tubes”. On top of this, the internet itself was built around the concept of a self-healing network that could route around hardware failures, however, the physical implementation of the internet (the wiring) as well as the logical design of many internet services (like website hosting) are limited by various bottlenecks and choke points that lead to outages. Another factor to keep in mind: even though there are machines that determine the routes our bits will take across the internet, those machines were built by humans, and they are configured and maintained by humans, which, as we all know, frequently leads to “oops, I broke the internet” moments.
Last Friday, Amazon (the world’s largest cloud computing provider) broke a good-sized chunk of the internet for everyone when their Eastern data center experienced “issues” that took several hours to resolve. During this time, hundreds of websites and cloud-based platforms (email servers, social media sites, etc.) were slowed down or completely offline. Depending on where you were geographically and what services you considered “your internet”, you were either fine, somewhat impaired, or “OMG everything is broken and on fire.” This was an actual, semi-serious quote from a client who shall remain nameless. Understandably, when your entire business relies on services provided by the internet, it can be incredibly frustrating not being able to just grab a pipe wrench to fix that broken tube. Even when your IT guy can point out the actual broken tube, unless it’s in your own home or office, rarely does he have a pipe wrench long enough or big enough to actually fix these types of problems. If it helps ease the pain, envision several thousand IT guys standing around the engine compartment of your broken internet car, rubbing their chins and saying, “There’s your problem,” while one guy is elbow deep, covered in grease actually trying to fix the problem.
While it may feel like some services are always broken, the fact remains that despite “hiccups” like these, cloud services are for the most part very reliable, and 90% of the time it probably is your local or regional “plumbing” that is the source of the issue. This is where the expertise of a firm like C2 comes in handy. Once we eliminate the obvious upstream sources, we are the technicians who are up to our elbows in wires and ISP automated support services, navigating the tangle of tubes that make up your personal network.
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