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9 Jul 2020

NBlog July 9 - the day the Earth stopped spinning

Here's something we don't see very often, well for no more than a fraction of a second, normally, discreetly tucked away at the bottom left corner of the browser window.

Today was different. Today the message was there long enough for me to grab that little screen shot.

Meanwhile, I had to wait
s e v e r a l
l   o   n   g
m i n u t e s

for the Google search results to appear.  

Minutes I tell you, minutes! Several of them! Shock! Horror! 

My little world stood still for a moment, my online life on hold.

In an instant, I realised that not only have we grown accustomed to near instantaneous access to Google's gigantic Web catalogue, but that I am actually quite dependent on it. I do sometimes use other search engines but I always scurry back to Google because it works well, almost always. The only reason I am bloggering on about it here is that a Google service failing is so unusual, exceptional in fact. Almost unheard of.  

The technology to achieve that outstanding level of service in terms of capacity, performance and reliability is awesome in both scale and cost, and yet most Google services appear free to use (well OK, they're not really free: we provide our search terms and a fair amount of personal information in return, plus Google's commercial services are charged at commercial rates. But at least we can opt out if we choose). 

It appeared the problem wasn't in our "broad"band, as is so often the case down here in rural NZ. Other websites carried on working, including Blogger (now a Google service), allowing me to start writing this piece. The outage appeared to be limited to Google's search engine.

Beyond that superficial observation, I have no idea what actually happened. Was it maybe a break in the Internet pipes - a literal break due to some oik wielding a back hoe, a trawler snagging an undersea cable, a nasteriod smashing into a comms satellite, or a virtual break due to misrouting? Did a Google server, rack or datacentre drop offline for some reason - maybe a power cut, fire or flood somewhere? Was it a wayward comma in a scripted automatic update, or an operator accidentally leaning an elbow on a keyboard? Was it a cyber attack? A bug? A design flaw? An overheated CPU shutting itself down? A test?

As I say, no idea.

As of now it appears to be working normally. I can't tell at this point whether Google search is in a recovery mode, having automatically detected the break in service and failed over to some other server somewhere. Such is the beauty of the Web: I don't need to know where the services are provided from. I don't even need to know the IP addresses of the web servers. I simply type my search phrase into the Google.com search form, and off it goes like a diligent, super-efficient librarian.

Yes I have my tongue firmly in-cheek but this failure was unusual enough to make me ponder cyber-resilience and recovery. If an outage of a single Web service for several minutes is noteworthy, what does that say about our dependence on the Web as a whole? What if the Web stops working one da

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