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Hot on the Web

The Web – reliable?

This column originally ran in ComputorEdge on August 11, 2006
(Issue 2432, Why Can't We Call Just Get Along)

During the late-July heat wave that reminded we Southern Californians that, yes, modern engineering may bring us the water to build huge cities in the desert but it's still a desert, a few occurrences made the point that the marketing departments at a lot of Web outfits are way ahead of their engineering departments.

Case in point:

As the heat wave started sizzling SoCal, the power grid was unable to handle the surge in demand for electricity as tens of millions of normally quiet air conditioners were all turned on. As Los Angeles experienced a rash of blackouts, MySpace went down for a few hours midweek.

The next day, when users were once again able to get back into Myspace, there was a note from Tom, the founder and still CEO (although he sold MySpace to Rupert Murdoch's conglomerate last summer for oodles of cash) explaining that MySpace's data center had lost power.

On Sunday of that week, it happened again.

Monday morning, another note from Tom apologizing and explaining that the data center's backup power supply had also failed.

Which calls up the question of how reliable the Web is, and how much each of us should invest of our daily routine in it.

Particularly important routines.

While MySpace may not seem mission critical to most of us, in the last year we've also seen Gmail brought down for hours and even days at a time by denial of service attacks. (DOS attacks are when small, usually dormant trojan horse viruses are distributed throughout the world and then auto-launched at a specific time to all start pinging a server – millions of computers all pinging even a server array as large as Google's at the same time will bring it to its knees.)

Millions of us tired of downloading spam have switched to Web-based e-mail accounts with Gmail, Yahoo, Hotmail, Netscape and others. The advantage of a Web-based e-mail account is you don't download a message until you view it. (And of course, they're accessible from any computer with Internet access and all have pretty good anti-spam filters – better than those of most standalone e-mail programs.)

But the disadvantage is we don't have much control over it.

With a standard e-mail client for home use such as Outlook, Eudora, Netscape or the Mac's built-in Mail center, you, the end user, have nearly full control. Sure, if you lose power at home you can't check your mail.

But you can download the messages when you do have power, and at least have access to them if the server goes down later.

With a Web-based account (and I use both every day), you don't really know what happens to your old messages you delete. All the Webmail companies say they respect our privacy – and they have no realistic choice given the sheer volume and numbers involved; it's a sort of privacy by anonynimty – but how secure are their data centers? Who knows?

More importantly, what if instead of a blackout, they simply change their business model and drop Webmail altogether? What if Yahoo or Microsoft (Hotmail) just decide to get out of the Webmail business?

They've every legal right to do so – with proper notification in the cases of those Hotmail customers who have ponied up cash for the paid, premium e-mail accounts.

But for the vast majority of us with the free accounts? What recourse would we have?

And yet, tens of millions of us find the allure of a free, universally accessible e-mail account irresistible.

Even MySpace isn't all frivolity. I spent the weekend of the heat wave going to hear local bands live as part of my full-time job as a music reporter for the North County Times. After, I hopped on MySpace to touch base with some of the bands I found most promising.

Well, that was the plan. Got in for awhile before the power outage hit.

The problem here is the MySpace experience can't translate to other options.

What I mean is this: If Google is targeted by denial of service hackers, I can still go search stuff on Yahoo or A9 or any of a dozen or more solid search engines. True enough, my Gmail account is also unaccessible for awhile, and I can't just go to my Yahoo account and read messages others have sent me. But I can go to my Yahoo account or my standard e-mail account and inform my friends and contacts that my Gmail account is temporarily off-line (assuming they don't also have Gmail accounts!).

But when MySpace is down, my ability to contact the local bands I saw is pretty much eliminated.

Interestingly, the week before the power outages, some Internet traffic auditing firm declared MySpace to be the No. 1 destination on the Web in the United States, passing Yahoo's home page (although Yahoo itself was still busier, due to the popularity of Yahoo Groups and Yahoo Webmail).

Which proves that while MySpace's marketing department has been very successful at convincing the rest of us to set up accounts and learn to rely on MySpace for communicating with our friends online, the engineering folks there have yet to create an infrastructure that can really handle the load.

A decentralized data grid that can't be taken down by one localized power outage ought to be the next order of business.