Thunderstorm knocks out Web giants

Severe weather left Amazon's cloud storage centers in northern Virginia without power, crippling large segments of the web that rely on its digital architecture.

By Jul 2, 2012 4:32PM

Image: Woman with computer (© Jose Luis Pelaez/Getty Images/Getty Images)Plenty of people found themselves bored this weekend when a powerful Atlantic storm disrupted Amazon's (AMZN) cloud storage centers Friday night, taking down Facebook's (FB) Instagram, Pinterest, and Netflix (NFLX), among others.

The outages, which sent Amazon into damage control mode for the better part of the weekend, underscores how dependent a large chunk of the web is on the search giant to provide affordable cloud storage.

Here, a brief guide to the Amazon architecture that secretly fortifies the web.

What kind of service does Amazon provide?
The Seattle e-tailer runs a data center called the Elastic Compute Cloud (EC2) in northern Virginia. On Friday night around 11 p.m. EST, severe thunderstorms cut off EC2's power, crippling services as diverse as Netflix, Pinterest, 99Designs,, Heroku, and Instagram. Other properties, such as Foursquare, were only partially affected, and most of the companies took to Twitter to alert their customers that they were working to restore service. By Saturday morning, most were back online again, even if with limited functionality. This weekend's outage, however, marks the second time EC2 has experienced downtime in a month.

How bad were the storms?
About 2.1 million people from Virginia to Illinois are still without power as of Monday morning, says Scott DiSavino at Reuters. The storms claimed at least 15 lives, "mostly from falling trees and branches." Ohio-based AEP (AEP), which supplies power to 5 million customers in 11 states, says it could take a few days to restore power to all, leaving millions without air conditioning as the region experiences a heat wave.

Why do all these companies rely on Amazon? 
Amazon's EC2 storage is affordable, which is why so many companies use it so extensively. In fact, "many new companies have business models that only make sense (if, in fact, they do) because of how inexpensive and flexible Amazon's cloud services are," says Anthony Wing Kosner at Forbes. But Amazon's vulnerability in such a disaster-prone area could spell bad news, especially if its clients begin looking into competitors, says Sean Ludwig at VentureBeat, "including Rackspace, SoftLayer, Microsoft's (MSFT) Azure, and Google's (GOOG) just-introduced Compute Engine." (Microsoft owns and publishes Top Stocks, an MSN Money site.)

Could this happen again?
Unfortunately, yes. The web is vulnerable to so many kinds of issues: Not only did Friday's storms cause huge problems, but on Saturday night, after an extra second was added to Earth's universal clocks, a "leap second bug" affected sites like Reddit, Yelp, and LinkedIn. Outages like this weekend's are "a reminder of how fragile, still, our digital architectures actually are,"says Megan Garber at The Atlantic. "As one commentator put it, 'No matter how powerful we become as a species with our technology, we are still at the mercy of the clouds.'"

Sources: The AtlanticCNETForbesReutersVentureBeat

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Jul 3, 2012 4:38PM

It may be a bumpy ride, but In the end Netflix will win. Cable TV Co's are losing customers because of high fees. You can watch TV online with just a web connection. The one I use is It's all online and reliable. Tons of shows both live and on-demand. For movies online I use Netflix. Between these 2 services I no longer need cable TV.

This is the wave of the future, hiccups included.

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