Industry experts have warned that a crash disabling eBay in Europe this week won’t be the last blackout, because the decades old systems of the web can’t hold the sheer weight of innovative devices and heavy websites.
The worldwide web has passed a milestone in its relentless growth this week: apparently, traffic across a key element of the Internet reached unprecedented levels and led to meltdown for the older pieces of equipment responsible for keeping data flowing.
One of the Internet traffic monitors revealed that the number of routes suffering outages had doubled to 12,600, while normally outages affect only 6,000 routes. As a result, eBay auctions ground to a halt, causing many complaints from the shopaholics, while office workers found themselves locked out of Microsoft’s cloud service Office 360 and password protection service LastPass. The engineers who were trying to fix the issue explained that the Internet simply broke under its own weight.
The core of the problem appeared a system known as the Border Gateway Protocol (BGP). This is actually a map of the web listing hundreds of thousands of routes or pathways that connect all devices to each other and to websites and company servers all over the world. Border Gateway Protocol lists routes for the external Internet, connecting networks owned by ISPs like BT or Virgin, linking them to each other, to foreign ISPs and to destinations like Apple or Google data centers.
Over the last week, the number of routes mapped by BGP passed 512,000. This is significant because older routers fail to remember more than 512,000 routes. This is why some of the older models started to slow down or simply forget routes, thus causing outages.
Other Internet observers blame the rise in traffic on an apparent mistake by Verizon, a US ISP. Its problem lasted only 5 minutes, but turned out to be big enough to bring down large swaths of the Internet.
At the moment, most of the larger Internet companies are somewhere around the 500,000 mark. For instance, Level 3, which joins up national Internet companies, was somewhere at 498,000 a few days ago.
In the meantime, the American tech giant Cisco has been warning since May that some of its older routers would collapse under the strain unless they were given a software update. The problem is that updating or replacing the routers can be complicated. But there is even bigger, related problem – the universe is running out of Internet addresses. National ISPs don’t want to move away from the current system which assigns an Internet address to each device, just like phone numbers. Fortunately, the next generation, IPv6, uses more digits and combines them with letters, so it will provide more addresses than the planet is ever likely to need. Some parts of the United States have already adopted the new address system. As for the UK, its broadband providers have issued some Wi-Fi boxes to their residential customers capable of using it, and one ISP is running both systems in parallel, but none of them has entirely made the switch.