Web, interrupted

The technology industry spends a lot of time and money coming up with solutions, but what many of us really want are excuses. Consider this a thank-you note to WorldCom for providing us with one.

News that a train travelling near Fostoria, Ohio veered off course Thursday morning would not

have mattered to most people in North America if the derailment hadn’t involved the severing of two WorldCom cables that ran along the tracks. Instantly, the Internet ground to a halt for users throughout the eastern and mid-West parts of Canada and the United States. Though Sprint, AT&T and Bell Nexxia said their fibre optic networks were unaffected by the outages, WorldCom customers were essentially shut down until the evening.

The company didn’t give out numbers of how many people were affected, but who cares? You know who you are, just like I know what happened to you. Service interruptions, if they’re longer than a few minutes, trigger a variety of emotions in users, and it goes in stages. First is the mild irritations when things seem to be slow, or if a “”server connection is not available message”” appears. You return some calls, shuffle some paperwork, talk to co-workers. Then you try again, and begin to seethe, knowing full well it’s as futile as getting angry with the cable company, the bank or the phone company. Finally, if it lasts long enough, there’s a strange sense of elation. You can’t work!

Of course, there are many knowledge workers in IT and outside the industry who don’t have to be logged on the Internet to fill a productive day. But for millions of people, the Internet is part of small but necessary steps to complete larger assignments. It can include research, certainly, but increasingly we’re talking about critical business-to-business transactions. No wonder WorldCom and the hosting companies go to great lengths to guarantee 99.9999 per cent uptime. The remaining percentage is probably to clear them from liability over acts of God — or railroads, I guess.

You wouldn’t be reading this today if ITBusiness.ca were a WorldCom customer. I don’t think I’m jeopardizing our security to say that we rely on browser-based applications to publish our online content. Even slow connections drive me crazy when. Two days ago we were pretty much ready to go at about 4:30 p.m. but ended up staying until past 5:30 because the pages wouldn’t refresh fast enough. Outages, however, are a different story.

After a certain point, you have to throw up your hands and accept that you can’t do anything about it. This can be very liberating. I remember an outage that struck our office years ago, several hours in advance of our deadlines. It seemed certain that service would never be restored in time. We panicked — and then we frolicked. Someone pulled out a deck of cards (which he had probably kept in his pocket since Grade 13, when you have more spares than classes), while others went downstairs to the coffee shop. We couldn’t go home — there was always that chance that someone out there would work a miracle, none came– but we were in a sort of limbo. People were giggling; it felt like we were getting away with something.

I don’t want to minimize the consequences that interrupted Internet access can have for many organizations, but the growing sophistication of our networks means these accidents may not happen very often anymore. Sometimes it takes an accident to make us appreciate the relentless pace at which we drive ourselves to succeed, and to savor the few isolated moments of peace that are granted us. Think of them as snow days. We aren’t allowed to admit it, but occasionally there can be a small upside to downtime.

sschick@itbusiness.ca

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