Facebook can’t be down, can it?
That was the immediate reaction from the engineers at web infrastructure firm Cloudflare, when they first noticed a problem accessing the social network on October 4. Indeed, in the moments after Facebook went dark, they immediately assumed the problem must be with their own equipment, not Facebook’s. Facebook doesn’t go down. The Titanic doesn’t sink.
It soon became clear, however, that Facebook had indeed disappeared. And not only Facebook itself, but Instagram, WhatsApp and anything else in the Facebook portfolio. “It was as if someone had ‘pulled the cables’ from their data centres all at once and disconnected them from the internet,” Cloudflare stated in a report published shortly after the outage.
It was six hours before Facebook’s sites started coming back online. Six hours in which Facebook sellers couldn’t trade, advertisers couldn’t reach users, and people couldn’t reach colleagues, friends and family via the social networks. The effects were felt beyond Facebook’s sphere too: Twitter struggled to stay upright following an influx of users wondering where Facebook had gone; DNS servers were flooded with requests for the missing sites; and the many sites that use Facebook credentials to authenticate users may as well have been offline themselves. Facebook sneezed and the internet caught a cold.
Facebook's outage felt like a cable pull
That’s simply not meant to happen. We’ve been told for decades that the internet is resilient, robust, that the distributed nature of the internet means it would survive a nuclear bomb with the cockroaches. Is that really true?
In the past year alone, there have been three major web outages that have seen behemoths such as Amazon, Reddit, HSBC and other household names knocked offline. Perhaps not for long, certainly nowhere near as long as Facebook was, but still offline. Far from being this huge, diverse network with ridiculous amounts of redundancy built in, 2021 has shown that even the most innocuous errors can knock out the world’s biggest businesses. The internet is perhaps more fragile than we thought.